Yellow submarines and the Prince of Shadows

Yellow submarines and the Prince of Shadows

By Ewan Naude

Unfortunately for most of us, fishing is something we do when time and married life allows. The trick for me is to cull any unnecessary ‘commitments’ that may keep me away from the water. It is obviously easier said than done, but it works in at least some cases. Luckily I have an understanding partner that isn’t too cut up if we are unable to attend ‘the wedding of a fifth cousin’ or the umpteenth fecking baby shower of the year.

Sometimes when the vice grip of responsibility lets you go, irrespective of the kak weather or time of year, a mission is on the cards. This story is about one of those trips.

In my relentless search for trophy Clanwilliam yellowfish, we took on the dusty drive to ‘Eldorado’. I had been eyeing this section of a river for a while and just could not wait any longer. Our expectations were realistic for this time of year, early December is hot and dry and this was an exploratory trip so any gold would be a bonus but the cold beers, Picanha steak and dazzling stars were guaranteed.

On the first day I took Leonard to a few productive pools that I had found on previous trips. I had seen monster fish in these pools.

The water was low, slow and the colour and clarity of bourbon. However, it took a while for the sun to rise enough so that we could see beyond the surface glare. When the rays reached the right angle it revealed a highway of Clannies, sawfin and smallmouth bass in front of us. Telling someone about an insane fishing spot is akin to bragging about the model you hooked up with at varsity (it ‘never‘ happened unless you can prove it!). I had told Len about the behemoths I had seen there while sipping whiskey around the fire the night before and I could tell that he was a little skeptical; but when I heard Len rattle of expletive laced commentary on what he had just seen while surveying that pool, I knew he had spotted the submarine.

Unfortunately for us the submarine and all his coussies had also spotted us and at this time of year, with temperatures way up and wary fish, you need to get lucky and remain hidden. In the next few hours we got given the finger by these fish. We conceded defeat and moved on.

I live by the philosophy that any tug is better than no tug at all, (piscatorial tug you cretins) and I was yearning for a tug. The next section we visited, although seemingly devoid of Clannies, had some big smallmouth bass swimming around and Len and I just couldn’t help ourselves any longer (when fishing for Clannwilliam yellows hooking anything else is out of the question, as it normally spooks all the yellowfish in the same pool). It was then that we also realized that the smallies were full of nonsense as well and they weren’t keen on our tried and tested bass flies. Enter Leonard Flemming the ‘refined trout and permit angler’. In an attempt to try something different, Len started throwing #16 hotspot nymphs suspended under a large dry and fished them static with the tiniest of twitches as the bass approached. Those bronzebacks snacked the little nymphs every shot a coconut – it definitely pays to be a ‘refined’ trout and permit angler…

A lekker spotted bass caught on a hotspot nymph

After putting the smallies to the sword I decided to stake out an area of a pool from an elevated rock which I’ve named Pride Rock. Sitting ‘Mufasa-like’, I watched the water for a few minutes. With such a bird’s view it was easy to see what those bloody Clannies were up to. Following in the footsteps of the ‘Prince of Shadows’, the smallmouth bass, the yellows cruised along the shadow lines and under the rocky overhangs, very seldom making themselves visible in the sunlight.

Presenting to such shy fish was near impossible as they disappeared within a blink. After making a cast under an overhanging willow branch I saw a really good fish emerge from the tree’s shadow and follow my fly but it was about as enthusiastic about it as a meat lover tucking into a tofu burger. By this stage Len had joined me on Pride Rock and due to the lack of Clannie sightings and drawing inspiration from his Loodkoppie days he began dipping the nymph and dry rig down the overhang. A good Clannie darted out from underneath the overhang and ate the small nymph. Unfortunately the fish made a mockery of the hookup and snapped the 4X tippet off on the sharp rock overhang when it retreated to its cave. Feeling defeated and bleak about the loss we moved on. It had been a tough day and one good Clannie would’ve eased the sunburn and the horse fly bites.

The misery was compounded further a few minutes later, when Len who was perched on a rock that dwarfed Pride Rock hooked a piggy bass on the dry fly. As he tried to figure out how to land the fish from a 5 m cliff, an easily-twelve-pound-Clannie grabbed the dropper! Tears, crocodile tears. A big bass swimming one way and a Clannie of a lifetime swimming in the opposite direction parted the tippet within seconds. We called it a day and moved on to the next campsite and new water to explore.

The next day dawned hot. The windless night and my insistence on sleeping under the stars meant that the mosquitoes dined well. I was awake before dawn and got the coffee fire going while Len enjoyed his insect-free slumber; he woke fresh and ready to take on the day and I looked worse than a three day old baboon turd. Three cups of condensed milk coffee lifted my spirits and we started our two hour walk in search of fresh pools.

It must have been 30°C by 8 am and the walk which culminated in a steep decent down a gorge was tough, but the water from the top looked virginal and untainted by man, something to look forward to. When we got to the water’s edge the white beaches gave away the secrets of whom and what had passed through the gorge before us. Leopard, caracal, small antelope, cattle footprints and the barefoot prints of a herd boy were to our relief all we saw. This was indeed what we were after; a place with no manmade footpaths. After a quick cool-down in a small rapid, we started at the tail of a really good looking pool.

Focused on the water in front of me, I saw Len making his way through some bankside vegetation out the corner of my eye. He was obviously trying to get himself into a good position to survey the pool, hopeful to make a cast to a patrolling Clannie. Seconds later I heard a deep hissing sound that would have put one of Khaleesi’s dragons to shame and then Len launched into an almost perfect Michael Flatley impersonation. Len caught a fleeting glimpse of the puff adder as it slowly retreated deeper into the brush. It was a reminder of the serious shit you would be in if a snake bit you this far up the gorge. I was relieved to have my American Snake Bite Institute snake guards on, even though I looked like a complete tosser wearing them.

Unfortunately, the snake was the most excitement we had in the morning as the pools were dead. We suspected that the absence of fish was due to the low water and scorching summer heat that may have forced the fish to drop back to a very large, deep pool further down river. Such exploratory walks are however never a waste of time and there’s no doubt that the area would be prime in the right season. We decided to walk through the gorge and fish while trying to find an alternative exit point to get back to camp. It was an inspired decision.

We found stunningly beautiful shallow sections on white sand and surprisingly, hungry smallmouths patrolling the flats. They’d appear and disappear into deep, narrow channels along the sand banks. Luckily, Len’s subtle nymph approach didn’t work. These fish charged my chunky Woolly Buggers. When they disappeared out of sight we made tight casts against bankside vegetation and under overhanging branches. A slow, steady strip was seldom ignored. It was a damn fine afternoon of smallmouth bass fishing.

That night we dined on Picanha washed down with a few cold beers and debriefed after a day of exploration and lessons learned; another piece in the Clannie puzzle that will ultimately take us to that trophy fish. We gave it one more stab the next morning before making the trip back to Cape Town and returned to the scene of Leonard’s failed Ménage à trois the day before. Len spotted fish almost immediately as he got to his perch and selected a big fish to target. He made a cast and the ~8 lb plus fish ate the fly without any hesitation, the first real positive reaction we experienced from a Clannie all weekend. The fish immediately took off for the opposite bank and in retrospect Len probably applied too much pressure and the 4X parted again. Let’s just leave it at that. We’ll be back to settle the score with those yellow submarines.