South Africa

Yellows of Kalahari

Sportfishing Adventures - - Content - Text and pho­to­gra­phy by Alex Jar­dine

Clo­se­ly re­la­ted to the mah­seer, the lar­ge­mouth yellowfish can reach up to a stag­ge­ring 50lbs !

Africa has al­ways see­med like a long way away to me. As so­meone who plans near­ly all of their mo­ve­ments around where and when the fishing is good, I have ne­ver real­ly pic­tu­red the conti­nent as high up on my list. Of course there is the well do­cu­men­ted and fierce ti­ger­fish as well as a ve­ry pro­li­fic salt­wa­ter fi­she­ry but no­thing had made me take the leap… un­til now. I had read and seen va­rious ac­counts of fishing for yellowfish over the years and I must ad­mit they did gain some of my in­ter­est, but I ve­ry much felt that they were a spe­cies that the South Afri­can’s tar­ge­ted as a re­pla­ce­ment for trout… How wrong I was!

Two ag­gres­sive ea­ters

In 2016, one of our good friends, Garth Well­man, first told us of this lit­tle-known but po­ten­tial­ly world class des­ti­na­tion in South Africa’s Nor­thern Cape for lar­ge­mouth yellowfish. You, like I did, are pro­ba­bly thin­king that a yellowfish is a yellowfish but there are in fact quite a lot of sub­spe­cies, each with their own unique cha­rac­te­ris­tics. The small­mouth yellowfish is the most well do­cu­men­ted of the spe­cies, it is an avid nymph and dry fly ea­ter and is ge­ne­ral­ly about 1 – 3 lbs in weight. The lar­ge­mouth, ho­we­ver, are sur­roun­ded with more mys­te­ry. They are not rea­di­ly ac­ces­sible in sou­thern Africa due to their spe­ci­fic ha­bi­tat re­qui­re­ments, of­ten loo­king for deep holes with lots of struc­ture and plen­ty of bait­fish. They are ag­gres­sive fish ea­ters, and un­like their more carp-like bre­thren, they take on a much more mah­seer-like ap­pea­rance with a flat and for­ward fa­cing mouth com­bi­ned with their eyes on the top of their head to help them hunt in low light condi­tions.

The 70km stretch of the Orange Ri­ver of­fers beau­ti­ful un­tou­ched sce­ne­ry on the bor­der of South Africa and Na­mi­bia.

Garth, and Craig, had brie­fed us that it was pos­sible to catch good num­bers of smal­ler small­mouth in the fast water on nymphs in the Nor­thern Cape but what real­ly made this place spe­cial was the big strea­mer-ea­ting fish in the slow deep pools. As I se­cret­ly en­joy fishing strea­mers and bait­fish pat­terns this grab­bed my at­ten­tion im­me­dia­te­ly and I set up sta­tion at my vice to pre­pare for the re­la­tive unk­nown…

With fea­ther and fur strap­ped to hooks and bags pa­cked it was soon time to leave the warm Au­gust sun­shine in the UK for the South Afri­can win­ter. Africa and win­ter, you may not think all that much of it but I must re­com­mend that you pack a wool­ly hat and warm socks. Whil­st the day time tem­pe­ra­tures were as hot as any sum­mer’s day in the UK the night time plun­ged in­to single fi­gures and some ex­tra warmth was of­ten ve­ry wel­come. We were gree­ted by our guides, Craig and Matt, and the camp crew that would be with us for the week, West, Eric, William and An­ton.

The bags were de­po­si­ted in our rooms and wel­come drinks were rea­dy and wai­ting at the bar. That eve­ning the usual buzz filled the air, sto­ries of pre­vious trips, jud­ging of flies tied and the an­ti­ci­pa­tion for what lay ahead of us. We en­joyed a won­der­ful braai around a camp fire un­der a ca­no­py of stars be­fore grab­bing a few hours’ sleep. I usual­ly struggle to sleep in on fishing trips, ne­ver wan­ting to miss a mo­ment of day­light or the beau­ti­ful gol­den hours of sun­rise and sun­set. I was no dif­ferent here, wa­king up at about 05:30, I found my way to the hot cof­fee and wai­ted out­side for the blee­ding hot orange of the ho­ri­zon to take over from the ex­panse of mid­night blue. As day­light be­gin to take a hold it was

A double hea­der of lar­ge­mouth yellows. Their co­lor can slight­ly change from a spe­ci­men to ano­ther.

pos­sible to see flee­ting spring­bok move from grass tus­sock to bush. We wol­fed down break­fast and more cof­fee be­fore loa­ding our kit on to a sa­fa­ri-style Land Ro­ver and be­gin­ning our 20-30 mi­nute jour­ney to the ri­ver. The ac­com­mo­da­tion and ri­ver ac­cess is all part of a large game re­serve and leo­pard pro­tec­tion area, this makes for a ve­ry unique and won­der­ful com­mute to the ri­ver. On this first mor­ning we saw nu­me­rous spring­bok, a gem­sbok and a lone gi­raffe as well as nu­me­rous birds and rap­tors. For what is at first quite de­so­late in ap­pea­rance soon springs to life. As you ap­proach the ri­ver the plains scrub turns in­to a rich vein of trees and shrubs with the cho­rus of va­rious birds au­dible over the bab­bling water.

First odd takes

Our set up on this first day was 7 and 8 weight rods mat­ched with Air­flo 40+ Di5 sin­king lines and 8-10 ft lea­ders with a 13-15 lbs tip­pet. For star­ters, Craig and Matt ad­vi­sed us to fish with hea­vier black strea­mer pat­terns. They as­su­red us that these are good for sear­ching for fish and on­ly once you find a shoal that you then start trying dif­ferent co­lours and sizes. Now all set-up, Ron­nie and I hea­ded out with Matt gui­ding us and Char­lotte and Gor­don hea­ded downs­tream with Craig. The day can on­ly be des­cri­bed as

I found the takes ve­ry odd on this first day, they were not like the big hits that the Mon­ta­na trout give you

one of two halves, the mor­ning was fresh and sun­ny but the af­ter­noon whil­st still sun­ny buf­fe­ted us with a fierce and co­ol eas­ter­ly wind which made for tough fishing condi­tions. Des­pite this we were all able to hook a fish or two and feel a few takes. I found the takes ve­ry odd on this first day, they were not like the big hits that the Mon­ta­na trout give you but far more he­si­tant, al­most like a sal­mon just nip­ping at the tail strands. Both Matt and Craig put this down to the unu­sual low pres­sure sys­tem that had pas­sed through the area just be­fore we ar­ri­ved. They ho­ped with some set­tled wea­ther that we would be­gin to feel some pro­per takes in the co­ming days. Char­lotte took ho­nours for the day with a nice lar­ge­mouth yellowfish of about 4 lbs and we lan­ded th­ree small­mouth yellowfish bet­ween 3 – 4 lbs. Ron­nie was the un­for- tu­nate an­gler with the ‘one that got away’ sto­ry as he hoo­ked in­to what ap­pea­red a good fish on­ly for it to stay deep be­fore the hoo­ked pul­led. With our ap­pe­tite whet­ted it was time to be­gin our float trip.

Ri­ver float fishing

The real world hustle and bustle was soon forgotten as we put­ted the rafts down the ri­ver and in­to the wil­der­ness that di­vides South Africa and Na­mi­bia. To jour­ney along the Orange Ri­ver here is to see how rich in life it is, the trees grow thick, cat­fish and carp leap from the water, and king­fi­shers, cor­mo­rants and he­rons pur­sue their prey from most ro­cky out­crops. It is tru­ly an over­load on the senses, as birds skip and flut­ter in all di­rec­tions, ba­boon shouts ring up and down the val­ley, the flo­we­ring plants of­fer a

The Green Kalahari pro­vides one of the most spec­ta­cu­lar land­scapes of South Africa. It is punc­tua­ted by large tracts of un­du­la­ting red dunes, moun­tain de­sert, and grass­lands in the far north of the Nor­thern Cape Pro­vince.

subtle fra­grance to the bank­sides and the sun be­gan to warm the still chil­ly breeze.The land­scape is full of in­ter­est, Red sand­stone and gra­nite cliffs guide the ri­ver along its path. Dry ri­ver beds from floods by­gone carve their way to the ri­ver of­fe­ring ani­mal drin­king spots and the pools are bro­ken up and split in­to chan­nels by sand and be­drock islands. The guides wor­ked the boats using an­chors and the oars to hold the rafts in po­si­tion so that you can tar­get rock drop-offs, deep un­der­cut banks and bed rock shelves. Over the course of our trip we real­ly be­gan to get an un­ders­tan­ding of where these fish could be found, the big­gest re­straint was ha­ving the confi­dence to fish the fly pro­per­ly. Both the lar­ge­mouth and lar­ger small­mouth yellowfish were found in deep water, close to the bot­tom but al­so tight against a struc­ture. The casts were of­ten made at the struc­ture and then a se­ries mends were made in or­der to hold the fly in po­si­tion and give the line and fly time to sink to the cor­rect depth. The fishing trip had star­ted slow­ly with a few taps here and there and on­ly a few lar­ge­mouth and small­mouth lan­ded, but our luck be­gan to pick up as we des­cen­ded down more ra­pids and lo­wer down the ri­ver.

the trip's tro­phy

It was our chan­ging for­tunes that led me to hook a fish that will haunt me for years to come, this time the line was al­most rip­ped out of my hands. The fish then ran straight for us, and I ru­shed to ga­ther up my loose line and get the fish un­der control on the reel. Now, on the reel, the fish felt the ex­tra ten­sion and this time took of downs­tream to take re­si­dence be­hind a rock mid­stream. Pau­sing on­ly brie­fly, it then went on a sea­ring run for about 20 yards. There was no chance of tur­ning this fish, or stop­ping it in its tracks and then I felt it go through weed and the line run along rocks. My heart sank at this point, kno­wing I was now fa­cing a lo­sing bat­tle I hung on in hope. Sure en­ough, the line frayed and broke and I was left cru­shed and

bea­ten in the back of the boat. We ne­ver saw the fish so can­not say for sure how big it was but with know­ledge that the lar­ge­mouth ex­ceed 20 lbs here and there is be­lief that they may even ex­ceed 30 lbs it was ea­sy for the mind to wan­der… Ne­ver one to take lo­sing a fish too well, I sat in the back of the boat with a cold Wind­hoek beer and wat­ched the ri­ver pass by. As the sun be­gan to dip be­hind the jag­ged the ho­ri­zon the tem­pe­ra­ture be­gan to fall and we pu­shed on to our camp­site. The camp­site was al­rea­dy set up and the glow of a war­ming camp­fire wel­co­med us in. The camp was on a large beach, made up of small stones and mil­lions of shells from the large po­pu­la- tion of crus­ta­ceans in the ri­ver, it was more akin to a sea­side beach than a ri­ver. Four spa­cious tents were set up with plen­ty of room for two people to share. A sea­ting area around one camp­fire and a se­cond camp­fire for co­oking. That night the sky burnt red be­fore gi­ving way to an in­cre­dible star dis­play. Whil­st the tem­pe­ra­ture plum­me­ted to single fi­gures the tents were com­for­table and it was so ea­sy to fall as­leep with the stars glin­ting through the tent win­dows. Ri­sing ear­ly to the cra­ck­ling fire and dim pre-dawn light was much ea­sier here. It was a new day and there were more fish to catch. Break­fast was a simple spread of ce­reals, yo­gurts and rusk (best to dunk these in

The camp­site was al­rea­dy set up and the glow of a war­ming camp­fire wel­co­med us in.

your cof­fee, un­less you want to break your teeth!). Whil­st ea­ting, the camp hands set up a cat­fish rod with bait to see if we couldn’t find one of the ma­ny big fish that re­side in the ri­ver. The set up was a simple hea­vy du­ty spin­ning rod, fixed spool reel, weight and a hef­ty chunk of one of the ma­ny mud­fish from the ri­ver. It wasn’t long be­fore we had ac­tion with a nice fish of around 20 lbs lan­ded du­ring break­fast. With the loss now firm­ly be­hind me, we floa­ted on down the ri­ver and the lar­ge­mouth and small­mouth yellowfish be­gan to grace the net with far more fre­quen­cy. The takes were far more confi­dent and the fish were clear­ly more ac­tive as the wea­ther be­gan to sta­bi­lise. Both Lar­ge­mouth and Small­mouth ave­ra­ged 4-6 lbs and fish over 8 lbs were com­mon. On the fi­nal day, af­ter se­ve­ral mis­sed takes I had to have a stern word with my­self to pull it to­ge­ther and make the next take count.

Last chance sa­loon

As we drif­ted in­to a pool cal­led ‘Last Chance Sa­loon’, we could see the prime spot. It took a while to get the cast in the right zone but then I fi­red a cast across. Im­me­dia­te­ly you knew it was in the right place, I made some mends in or­der to get the fly down. As I felt the fly sin­king I could feel the line draw tight, not like a snag but dif­ferent. I firm­ly strip set the hook and knew that I had got it right. The fish took off in­to the pool and tried to dig deep. Now that my fish was away from the zone my boat part­ner was able make ano­ther cast. As my fish ap­proa­ched the net I look over to see that he has al­so hoo­ked in­to a fish. Af­ter a few mi­nutes we had both fish sat in our net. They were good fish and re­mar­ka­bly si­mi­lar in size. When wei­ghed they both clo­cked the scales at 12 lbs, it was a fan­tas­tic mo­ment. Not quite the last cast but a won­der­ful way to round off a brilliant fishing trip. Over the course of our four and a half days fishing we lan­ded 25 small­mouth to just un­der 10 lbs and 25 lar­ge­mouth to 18 lbs bet­ween four of us. Whil­st this was consi­de­red a tough week of fishing, we were de­ligh­ted with our ef- forts but at the back of my mind that fish that got away is still lin­ge­ring… I must go back

Af­ter a long day's fishing, you'll be hap­py to re­lax and eat at the camp­site on the ri­ver's banks.

Id­ling through the ri­ver on in­fla­tables is an ad­ven­ture in it­self.

Youn­ger fish nor­mal­ly ap­pear ligh­ter in co­lor. Ol­der spe­ci­mens are ra­ther yel­low and green.

The best yellowfish flies of the trip.

Al­though it seems ve­ry arid, ani­mals like gi­rafes, lions, and leo­pards thrive in the Green Kalahari.

Spec­ta­cu­lar land­scapes, un­tou­ched wil­der­ness, and unique fishing awaits an­glers in this part of South Africa.

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