The yellowfishes, a group of indigenous cyprinids that inhabit the rivers and stillwaters of Southern Africa, are truly a fly-rodder's delight. Inasmuch as they cannot be caught elsewhere in the world, they should be on the shopping list of every visiting fly angler.
Yellowfish feed actively on aquatic organisms and, for that reason, they can be expected to take a fly, which they do quite readily. Nonetheless, they can be just as demanding to catch as the most selective trout and can provide hours of world-class fly-fishing action.
The two largest freshwater gamefishes in South Africa are both yellowfishes - the Orange-Vaal largemouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus kimberleyensis) that attains an impressive 20 kilograms, and the Clanwilliam yellowfish (L. capensis) that reaches almost 11 kilograms.
The National Yellowfish Working Group (NYWG) of South Africa recognises nine yellowfish species. Of these, six are true yellowfishes belonging to the genus Labeobarbus - the Orange-Vaal smallmouth yellowfish (L. aeneus), Clanwilliam yellowfish, Orange-Vaal largemouth yellowfish, Lowveld largescale yellowfish (L. marequensis), Kwazulu-Natal yellowfish (L. natalensis) and Bushveld smallscale yellowfish (L. polylepis). A seventh yellowfish species (L. codringtonii) inhabits the Okavango-upper Zambezi system but fly fishers have not yet targeted it to the same extent as the other six. The other three species are similar in appearance but belong to the genus Barbus. They are the Bushveld papermouth (B. rapax), Berg-Breede whitefish (B. andrewi) and Clanwilliam sawfin (B. serra). Like the true yellowfishes, they are also worthy opponents on fly tackle.
Fly fishing for yellowfishes has grown hugely in popularity in the last 15 years. This is largely due to the exposure given to their fine fly-fishing qualities by two specialist fly-fishing magazines in South Africa, Flyfishing and The Complete Flyfisherman. The NYWG (current chair Peter Mills: firstname.lastname@example.org) and the Federation of Southern African Fly Fishers (FOSAF, which administers the NYWG), have played a considerable role in elevating yellowfishes to the position of a flagship freshwater fly-fishing species by promoting them as a fly-fishing quarry and by funding research projects. As a result, the Water Research Commission (WRC), with assistance from the NYWG, in 2007 released two national publications in as many years on the status of our yellowfishes, truly a noteworthy effort.
Fly fishers targeting yellowfishes need to be aware that several species are under threat due to the negative impact of invasive alien fishes and habitat degradation. These include the Berg-Breede whitefish and Clanwilliam sawfin (both Endangered) as well as the Clanwilliam yellowfish (Vulnerable). Largemouth yellowfish and papermouth are both listed as Near Threatened. Some of the other species are also under pressure, so it makes sense that all yellowfishes should be handled with care and released after being caught.
Yellowfish are now finally enjoying prominence as a freshwater flagship species because of their value as indicators of ecosystem health and as an esteemed angling quarry. While most fly fishers normally focus on the readily available species, the holy grail of the yellowfish fly-fishing enthusiast in South Africa is to catch all nine species on fly, something we both have been fortunate to achieve. For this reason, we also include threatened yellowfish species in this chapter.
Each of the yellowfish species poses unique challenges to the fly fisher in respect of geography, its location in a stream, feeding preferences and the appropriate angling approach. But there are also many tactics that apply to the group as a whole. In this section, we cover those aspects of catching yellowfish that are applicable to all nine species. In the following section, in which each species is discussed individually, we have added those details that are of relevance to that particular species.
Our approach is that an angler should cover all areas where yellows are likely to be found. For that purpose we divide the water we intend to fish into different zones. First, we identify sheltering zones, then prime zones and last feeding zones. The only reason we try to identify sheltering zones is to have an idea beforehand of where the fish may head once we have managed to hook it. This simple step has allowed us to land most of our trophy fish, as we were able to dictate the fight right from the start. The zones of greatest importance are those offering food as well as protection and shelter (prime zones) and those offering food (feeding zones). We make an effort to identify and focus our efforts on the prime zones because that is where the fish will be throughout the day. Feeding zones, on the other hand, become significant during late afternoon and early morning.
Prime zones tend to be between 40 centimetres and 1 metre deep and have a broken surface that lessens the chances of predator and prey seeing each other. They are also close to those current lanes that carry significant quantities of food. This is where you should spend most of your time, especially when the fishing is tough. A typical prime zone is at the head of a pool, where the turbulence caused by the fast inflowing current offers protection from predators and also allows food items carried in the current to spin out into the quieter pockets of water.
Feeding zones come into their own in the early morning and late afternoon when there are large hatches of aquatic insects and when darkness gives the fish a sense of security in an area where there may be little or no shelter. A favoured feeding zone is the tail-out of a pool. Here, the current is constricted horizontally as well as vertically, and consequently, the suspended food items become less dispersed. By the nature of things, tail-outs are generally shallow and smooth-surfaced which means good visibility in and out of the water. Fish feeding in these areas tend to be very wary and spook at the slightest sign of danger, so be cautious when you fish them.
To recap, the three top areas to focus on are tail-outs of pools, edges of strong currents, and where riffles or glides spill into pools. Now how do you catch yellowfish in these places? The techniques in common use are discussed next.
Fly-fishing techniques for yellowfishes fall into three broad categories: dead-drift nymphing, streamer fishing or active-retrieve techniques, and short-line or Czech nymphing.
Dead-drift nymphing is used to fish the shallower water of glides and riffles in summer, but it can be adapted to catch fish feeding from surface to mid-depth in pools. During the warmer months (October to March), yellowfish favour the faster-flowing stretches of rivers as they carry more food and have a higher oxygen content. All sizes of the fish are found here, with the bigger specimens preferring the deeper glides.
Yellowfish, whether as individuals, loose groups or schools, face upstream when they seek food in riffles and glides. They feed on the abundant aquatic insects that inhabit the rocky streambed as well as those that are dislodged and washed downstream. This they do with their heads pointing upstream but slanted slightly downwards, in order to see food being carried by the current. It is obvious, therefore, why your flies should fish as close to the bottom as possible. Essentially, the technique involves using a 5-weight fly rod and reel, a matching floating line, and a 2.5-metre tapered leader with a 25-centimetre tippet. Leader and tippet strength are determined by local conditions but, in general, we would recommend a 2X or 3X leader extended with a section of 4X or 5X tippet. You can get away with a heavier tippet in the turbid waters of the Vaal but you will need something wispier in the clear headwater streams and some impoundments. We also attach a strike indicator to the leader at a point appropriate to the conditions and species being targeted. As a rule that position should be one and a half to two times the depth of the water above the dropper (or top fly). The position of the strike indicator should be adjusted until it allows the flies to drift just above the streambed - move it 10 centimetres at a time until you start hooking fish or hooking the bottom.
Yellows are seldom so selective that fly pattern is of primary concern. Ninety percent of the time, the depth at which your flies drift is more important than the fly used, and you should check this every time you start fishing a new stretch of the river. When fishing the dead-drift method, we often use two flies - a heavy dropper (usually a weighted caddis larva imitation or an impressionistic nymph pattern like a Copper John) tied 20 to 30 centimetres above a smaller and unweighted point fly such as a mayfly nymph imitation. Although some fish may take the dropper, its primary purpose is to get the point fly down to the bottom. Using two flies in tandem in this way will also give you a better idea of which patterns are producing. Upwards of 70 percent of your takes will come on the smaller point fly. If there is a noticeable shift to the dropper, use a smaller version of it to replace the point fly. A variation of the dead-drift nymphing method is to use a dry fly as the strike indicator, with a small emerger attached to the bend of the hook by a 10- to 30-centimetre tippet. This is a very effective technique if fish are rising in pools, glides and riffles. Use a size 10 or 12 super-buoyant fly such as a Kaufman's Stimulator or Goddard Caddis, and attach to it an imitation of the emerging stage of a hatching insect - your choice will be determined by the species of insect on the water - mayflies, caddis, chironomids or other. If in doubt, you can hardly do better than a lightly weighted size 14 Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear. In faster water, cast upstream and allow the flies to drift towards the feeding fish; it may take either the suspended nymph or the dry fly itself. In pools, cast across, down and across, or even straight downstream, but make sure there is sufficient slack in your line for a drag-free drift.
In dead-drift nymphing, the intent is to allow the current to carry your flies downstream in a natural manner to where the fish are waiting. When fishing slower glides and pools, it may be necessary to impart some movement to the flies to catch the attention of a prospective quarry. To achieve this, throw a small mend to move the indicator and flies upwards and forward smartly, thus imitating the movement a hatching insect may make. This is known as the 'twitch-tease' technique.
STREAMER TACTICS OR ACTIVE RETRIEVE
This technique is generally used when you fish large pools and stillwaters, but it is just as effective when fishing glides. Depending on conditions, you can use a floating line with a 4- to 5-metre leader, an intermediate line with a 2- to 2.5-metre leader, or a slow-sinking line with 1- to 1.5-metre leader. Cast your flies towards a suspected lie and allow them to sink to the depth at which you believe the fish is holding. Now start retrieving the flies in a manner that mimics the movement of the natural organism you are trying to imitate. This can vary from a very slow retrieve when fishing mayfly or damselfly imitations, to a moderate retrieve with occasional short quick strips to imitate emerging caddis, dragonflies, tadpoles, freshwater shrimp and small fish. It is good practice to keep the rod tip slightly submerged to remove any slack line. This ensures good contact with the flies and enhances the detection of any takes. Pay close attention to your fly line and leader and strike whenever you see any sideways movement, hesitation or straightening. At times largemouth, smallmouth, Clanwilliam, and Natal yellowfishes, as well as papermouth, take the fly so aggressively there can be no mistaking what has happened. On other occasions, though, they may mouth and reject the fly so delicately that most anglers are not even aware that they had a take. Your concentration should be at its peak at all times in order to detect these subtle takes - as a rule, strike if you feel any resistance, no matter how slight - you might be pleasantly surprised.
To fish glides in this manner, cast across the current, allow the leader and flies to sink, and watch the line carefully for any takes as it swings downstream. A heavy dropper fly, such as a tungsten bead-head caddis, will sink the flies quickly to the bottom; mending the line also helps. Retrieve the flies very slowly and twitch them every now and then to suggest a live creature.
SHORT-LINE OR CZECH NYMPHING
Czech nymphing has been around for at least 20 years and there have been significant developments in this time. Short-line nymphing is, however, a more appropriate and descriptive name for this close-range, nymph-fishing technique. We are thankful to Protea fly fisher, MC Coetzer, for the following contribution.
There are several reasons why short-line nymphing is such a highly successful technique:
Traditional Czech nymphing involves the presentation of three flies on a leader of around 2.5 metres with no more than 1 metre of fly line outside the top guide. Due to the considerable changes in water depth as you fish from one run or structure to the next, it is not practical to adjust the leader every time you move, and for this reason I have settled on a length that will suit most conditions. Cast the flies upstream at a narrow angle to your position, then follow them downstream under the rod tip to the end of the drift when they will sweep up to the surface. Repeat the procedure if you so wish, or cover new water by either increasing the angle of the upstream presentation, or by moving to a new position.
It is important that you lead the flies downstream without allowing the fly line to enter the water and with only enough tension on the leader to maintain contact with the flies. This is vital for successful bite detection, which is done visually and by sense of touch. A brightly coloured minicon (Mini connector, in fact, a small strike indicator. THE EDITOR) on the end of the fly line greatly improves visual bite detection - set the hook when it makes any unusual movement. The advantages of this technique, as opposed to the monofilament-nymphing technique (where no fly line is used), is its versatility and the speed with which it can be changed to suit different conditions. A quick change of fly patterns or the addition of a strike indicator turns the Czech-nymph rig into an indicator-nymphing set-up. You can accommodate slightly deeper water without having to change flies by simply lengthening the cast somewhat, thereby giving the flies more time to reach the desired depth.
The flies are spaced between 40 and 50 centimetres apart on the leader at positions known as the point, the middle dropper, and the top dropper. Where to place the heavy and light nymphs on the leader is of considerable importance and there are many options. My personal preference is for only one of the three flies to be sufficiently weighted in order to reach the desired depth. With this set-up you can now fish the remaining two flies that have little or no weight built into them very close to the bottom. The light flies move in a more natural way in the water and generally account for the most fish as well.
My own preference, depending on conditions and season, is to place an imitation of a mayfly emerger or a caddis emerger, on the top dropper. This pattern is rarely changed during the course of a day's fishing and accounts for approximately 20 percent of fish caught. Most fish take this emerger pattern on the swing when the flies start sweeping up to the surface. The heaviest fly, also referred to as the control fly, is fished on the middle dropper and it determines the depth at which the other two flies swim. The second important function of the control fly is to straighten out the leader thereby improving contact with the flies. The control fly is invariably an imitation of a caddis larva. The bent-shank hooks on which caddis larva imitations are tied, offer sufficient shank length and gape to allow for the addition of lead wire or tungsten beads, without sacrificing too much width in the gape. You'll have to swap the control fly whenever there is a change in current depth or speed to keep your flies at the level where the fish are holding - this is absolutely vital for successful Czech nymphing. The point fly can be either a mayfly nymph or a caddis larva imitation. Again, seasonal conditions and the fish's preference on the day will determine which specific pattern to use. This unweighted pattern will, on most days, account for the bulk of fish caught and for this reason it is also referred to as the "fishing fly".
With just a smidgen of luck and strong determination, you should be able to take all nine yellowfish species on a 5-weight outfit travelling across South Africa. . So, if you want to stick to one rod, that's the way to go. The reel should be capable of holding 70 to 100 metres of 9-kilogram backing and a weight-forward floating line. We strongly recommend having two extra spools, one with an intermediate line and the other with a sinking line. These lines are particularly useful when fishing to unsighted fish in dams and deeper pools. Most fly fishers seem to have more than one rod, so take along your 2- or 3-weight outfit with floating line when fishing small streams.
Yellowfish inhabit a wide range of waters, and it always feels better when the rod you are using matches the conditions and the size of fish being targeted. A 700-gram yellow on a 2-weight in a small stream is as satisfying as a 1.5-kilogram fish on a 5-weight in the Vaal. When fishing specifically for big largemouth or Clanwilliam yellowfish, a 7- or 8-weight rod is more appropriate. Not only can you cast long distances with large, wind-resistant flies when necessary, but it also gives you the edge when trying to subdue a big, powerful fish.
Fly fishing for yellowfishes generally requires walking and wading. Most wading takes place in summer in water that is from about 50 centimetres to 1 metre deep and with water temperatures running upward of 20- C. Wading gear can be as simple as a pair of fast-drying pants, fishing shirt and a pair of wading boots. A wading staff is recommended for rivers such as the Vaal that are notoriously difficult to wade. A pair of shoes that protect ankles and toes may suffice for a casual outing but it is better to bring your wading boots if you intend doing some serious fishing. Avoid waders with built-in boots altogether! Our summer sun is fierce - protect your skin, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, a wide-brimmed hat and a liberal coat of good-quality, waterproof sunscreen. A good pair of polarised sunglasses is almost mandatory to protect your eyes from glare and to help spotting fish in clear water. A waterproof pouch or bag for valuables like car keys and cameras is a nifty accessory.
A note about conserving your catch: please handle fish with caution after wetting your hands and minimise the fighting time as well as the time the fish spends out of water. When taking photographs, the photographer should be ready before the fish is taken out of the water. Keep the fish immersed and allow it ample time to recover before releasing it - it should be able to swim away strongly if fully recovered.
The flies required to catch yellowfish are dealt with on an individual species basis in the next section.
All yellowfishes belong to the Cyprinidae family.
Conservation status: Least Concern.
Range: Smallmouth yellowfish are found in large numbers almost throughout their natural range, the huge Orange-Vaal River system. They were introduced into a number of other drainage basins several decades ago: by deliberate stocking in the Gouritz River (Western Cape) and Kei River (Eastern Cape), and by inter-basin transfer of water into the Great Fish River (Eastern Cape). Smallmouth yellowfish populations are generally healthy but are vulnerable to over-exploitation and water pollution and, hence, should be properly managed.
Size and Mass: Smallmouth yellowfish grow to 50 centimetres and 7 kilograms.
Habitat: Larger fish tend to frequent large deep pools for most of the year and only migrate to nearby gravel beds in order to spawn. In rivers, all spawning takes place in riffles less than 30 centimetres deep, with a gravel substrate. Small to medium fish live in the faster sections such as pockets, glides and riffles for most of the summer, only moving back into the pools in autumn for the duration of the colder months. Large smallmouth behave very much like largemouth yellowfish but are distinctly more territorial - i.e. they don't migrate as far as largemouth do. Radio-tagged fish confined themselves to a surprisingly small area, and hardly travelled more than 20 metres in any direction for several weeks. The only exceptions were when they made brief forays to an upstream spawning riffle. Smallmouth yellows seemingly inhabit large stillwaters without problems, and although very little is known about their behaviour in this environment, the fish are healthy and have spawned successfully on gravelly shores of some dams such as Sterkfontein.
Season: Smallmouth yellowfish can be caught all year round, although the warmer months are best. The only condition that hampers this is when underwater visibility is less than 15 centimetres. The Vaal is very forgiving in this regard as water clarity usually recovers in less than 14 days after heavy rain. The best time of year in terms of size and numbers of fish is October. This is generally prior to the start of the rainy season, conditions are stable, and fish are feeding avidly before spawning between November and January. Another good time is during April and May when water clarity and levels are back to ideal. Substantial insect hatches also occur during this period, triggering feeding frenzies that are the dream of any imitative fly angler.
Behaviour: Adult fish feed mainly on larger aquatic organisms like freshwater shrimp, dragonflies and damselflies but they readily take minnows and crabs as well. They are very social fishes and usually forage in small schools. In summer, smallmouths are most active in early morning and late afternoon but during the colder months, from May to August, expect feeding activity at any time of the day.
Arguably, more smallmouth yellows are caught annually than all the other yellowfishes collectively. The primary reasons are that they are amenable to taking a fly and are known for their power and stamina. Moreover, the Vaal, prince of yellowfish rivers, is close to Gauteng which has the greatest number of fly fishers in South Africa.
During the warmer months, mid-morning and late afternoon are customarily the best times to fish, but don't overlook the midday hours when you should focus on prime zones like glides and pools. Under normal circumstances, a competent angler can catch between five and 10 fish per session and accomplished anglers can take as many as 30 in a day. During the chilly winter months from May to August you should confine your efforts to the larger pools, when 1-3 fish in a session will be a good return. Observant anglers with good fish-spotting skills unquestionably catch more fish, so watch out for signs of feeding or cruising fish or other activity such as swirls, splashes and tail or dorsal fins breaking the surface.
Under average conditions, most anglers use the dead-drift method in glides and riffles and short-line nymphing in rapids and runs. In pools you will mostly use streamer tactics but when surface activity is evident, the dry fly fished with an emerger pattern in tandem is a deadly combination.
A tandem rig featuring a #10 caddis pupa imitation and a #14 caddis pupa or mayfly nymph imitation is a super combination if you intend dead-drifting or actively retrieving in glides. Should surface feeders show up, replace the top fly with a buoyant dry like a Goddard Caddis. Size is seldom critical but if fish refuse the dry switch to a smaller size. Generally, 70 percent of your takes will be on the trailing nymph and the rest on the dry but, occasionally, the dry fly will draw most strikes. For streamer fishing, use the same flies as for largemouth yellows but in #6 to 8. Black or olive Woolly Buggers, Strip Leeches, Strip Dragons, and minnow imitations seldom fail to score.
The SA angling record for L. aeneus is 7.837 kilograms.
The Vaal River, from the barrage to its confluence with the Orange (Map 6), has loads of prime yellowfish water, and many tributaries, such as the Riet River, also carry substantial stocks of smallmouth. The Orange River abounds with yellowfish from below Gariep Dam to the awe-inspiring Richtersveld near its estuary. Several large dams in the Orange-Vaal catchment have sizeable populations of smallmouth, with Sterkfontein Dam (Map 7) being the best place to sight fish for them. The Gourits River and its tributary, the Gamka, in Western Cape fish very well, when they run clear, as does the Eastern Cape's Kei River in winter.
The main stem of the Vaal River has several major impoundments along its course from which the flow of water is carefully regulated. Flow rates in excess of 30 cubic metres per second make fishing and wading difficult and it is better to determine beforehand what you can expect. Go to www.fosaf.co.za, follow the yellowfish link, and get the latest information on the daily flow. An added advantage is that you can also get current fishing reports at the same site.
Large smallmouth yellowfish often school with largemouth yellowfishes in the bigger rivers, and both show a preference for larger fly patterns. You may also pick up Orange River mudfish (Labeo capensis) or sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus) while fishing for smallmouth. Mudfish will take caddis and mayfly imitations fished deep, and catfish eagerly accept a large baitfish imitation. Alien carp (Cyprinis carpio) are common in many parts, whereas largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) and Chinese grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella) have established themselves in a few areas. These species can be caught using appropriate techniques and should preferably be killed after capture.
Conservation status: Listed as Near Threatened because of declining numbers and water quality.
Range: Largemouth yellowfish, colloquially called 'largies', are the largest member of the Labeobarbus genus in South Africa, and are found naturally in the Orange-Vaal River catchment. Their preferred habitat is in larger rivers and impoundments and they are absent from the headwater streams. They have also been introduced into the Great Fish River but their status there is unclear. Although there is concern about their well-being, populations seem to be reasonably healthy based on angling reports and fish surveys across their range.
Size and Mass: Males reach sexual maturity at the age of six years and females at eight. They attain a length of 100 centimetres and a mass of 22 kilograms.
Habitat: Largemouth favour large, deep pools, particularly those that have a lot of rock ledges, some sandy substrate and also submerged and fringing vegetation. The latest research revealed that they spend much more time in shallow sections of their home rivers than previously believed. They also tend to travel over greater distances than smallmouth yellowfish. During a recent study, migrations of 4 to 6 kilometres were common, and one fish travelled more than 20 kilometres. Juveniles are usually found in shallow glides, riffles and backwaters of pools and their behaviour and feeding patterns are similar to those of smallmouth yellowfish.
Season: Largemouth yellowfish are commonly caught from May to September when rivers are low and clear. Very clear waters, such as the Riet River and the Van Der Kloof Dam are productive all year round.
Behaviour: Adult fish feed mainly on minnows, larger aquatic insects like dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, crabs and freshwater shrimp. They invariably hunt in small pods of four to 10 fish and search for food along the edges of appropriate structure. In summer, they are at their most active in early morning and late afternoon but, from May to August, they may become active at any time of the day.
The ideal habitat to look for is a pool of variable depth, but with some water deeper than 2 metres, and an abundance of aquatic plants, rocky reefs, reed beds or overhanging trees and other structure. Focus on the areas in and around structure that is alongside or near to the main current lane. Largemouth are particularly fond of drop-offs close to a sandy substrate, edges of weed beds, and rocky points and ledges. They often feed around larger rocks near the tail-out of pools, but here you have to be extremely cautious, as they are ultra-wary and spook easily in such scant cover. Your next objective, if the water is reasonably clear, is to try and locate cruising fish. You have a much better chance of a positive response and hook-up from such a fish, because you can present your fly more accurately, observe the actual take and time your strike.
To do the job properly, you need at least two rods and three types of fly lines when fishing for largemouth. A 6- to 8-weight rod with matching intermediate or sinking lines is appropriate for the deeper sections of rivers and dams, whereas a 5- or 6-weight rod and a floating line are suitable for the shallower glides and eddies. Use a 3-metre leader on floating lines and a 2-metre leader on intermediate lines. A 1- to 1.5-metre leader of 6- to 8-kilogram monofilament is all you'll need on a sinking line.
Your basic technique for largemouth is, almost invariably, to fish a streamer across the current, or across and down to fish-holding areas. This results in better contact with your flies and more hook-ups. To fish the deeper and wider stretches of a river, you normally require a craft of some sort, with or without an electric trolling motor. Approach likely looking spots stealthily to ensure you don't spook the fish. Anchor your boat in a position that allows you to explore a likely looking spot with downstream or down-and-across casts. Preferably cover your anchor with rubber to prevent any abnormal noise that may alarm the fish and send it scurrying for cover.
When you see a cruising fish in clear water, watch it carefully for a while and monitor its movements, taking care to avoid it spotting you. Although a largemouth will deviate towards its prey, you will have far greater success if you can place the fly at a point ahead of the fish that will allow the fly sufficient time to have sunk to the fish's level when it reaches that point. If the fish takes the fly, set the hook and be prepared for a fast and very powerful run. Fight it hard and try to land it as quickly as possible in order to increase its chance of survival.
In murky water, the most successful flies are those that have a bulky silhouette and profile, enabling them to "push" water. A good choice is the ever-popular Woolly Bugger, or its variants, in black or black and olive. In clearer water, flies should be more imitative of the larger insects and minnows. A few innovative local fly tiers have developed some very effective patterns in recent years. These include the Strip Dragon, Strip Leech, Strip Minnow, MSP (inverted Strip Minnow), Waterdog and various others. These flies are available commercially at many fly-fishing shops. Largemouth often hunt close to the surface and will take grasshoppers, beetles termites and even birds and rodents that fall into the water. Surface flies like Dahlberg Divers, Waterdogs, and so on can be very successful at times and the spectacular take 'off the top' will leave a lasting impression on the lucky angler. Attach your flies with a non-slip loop knot to allow them to move freely.
The SA angling record for L. kimberleyensis is 22.2 kilograms.
This species is also widely distributed, but is less common than the smallmouth because it is an apex predator. The Orange River from Gariep Dam downstream to the Richtersveld National Park holds a lot more largemouth than the Vaal but the Vaal fish tend to run bigger because of higher nutrient levels. The lower reaches of the Vaal between Bloemhof Dam and Douglas (Map 6) tend to have more largemouth than the middle and upper reaches. The Riet River, a tributary of the lower Vaal, is a noted hot spot, especially in the Mokolo National Park where fishing is permitted at the old Lilydale Lodge, now called Mokolo-Lilydale Rest Camp. Van der Kloof Dam is now producing outstanding largemouth fishing for trophy fish, and boats are needed to cover water effectively and access the best spots. Largemouth enthusiasts tend to be secretive about their hot spots because they treasure catching these magnificent fishes, all of which must be released with great care. Most suitable pools in these areas may well contain largemouth but you need to make a determined effort to catch them.
See the section on smallmouth yellowfish.
Conservation status: Least Concern.
Range: There are two true yellowfishes in the catchments of the Limpopo, Nkomati and Phongolo Rivers in the north and east of the country. They are the largescale and smallscale yellowfishes. Although L. polylepis inhabits essentially the same catchments as the largescale yellowfish, L. marequensis, it prefers the cooler reaches or rivers above an altitude of 600 metres. Most rivers in the natural range of the species have healthy populations, except for some badly polluted headwaters in Gauteng and Mpumalanga.
Size and Mass: Smallscale grow to 46 centimetres and 6.8 kilograms.
Habitat: They prefer the larger pools of rivers and gather in large schools during winter. As with the other yellowfish species, they migrate into faster water when the weather turns warmer and water temperatures reach 20- C. Adult fish migrate into the riffles in late spring and summer to spawn.
Season: Smallscale yellows can be caught throughout the year although, in summer, the rivers take longer to clear after rainstorms. The best time to catch larger fish consistently is usually in September and again in April / May when water temperatures are still reasonable and the rivers are clearer. The upper Phongolo has developed an excellent reputation for trophy smallscale and largescale yellows, and good catches for both species, in winter.
Behaviour: This species feeds on a variety of aquatic organisms like mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, midges, freshwater shrimp, and dragonfly and damselfly nymphs but big fish will also take minnows and crabs. Like the other yellowfishes, they are social and gather and feed in schools.
Focus your efforts on the prime zones, which are drop-offs, rock ledges in deep pools, deep water next to reed beds or the current lanes at the head of a pool. The outside bend of a meander is also a favoured place, particularly the seam between the faster current and the slower water on the inside. In the late afternoon, you should direct your efforts to the feeding zones. It is most satisfying to sight fish to small and largescale yellows in rivers that stay relatively clear for most of the year.
Imitations of mustard-coloured caddis larvae, olive caddis larvae, and mayflies in black, brown or olive should be high on your list of productive flies. Occasionally, mostly late afternoon or early morning, a large attractor pattern with lots of flash can turn a slow day into an excellent one. In winter, larger patterns (woolly bugger, dragon nymphs) that are fished deep with slow retrieves in pools often account for good sized fish.
The SA angling record for L. polylepis is 6.18 kiloograms.
The Bloubank, Bronkhorst and Magalies rivers in Gauteng are worth a visit, as is the Blyde and Nkomati of Mpumalanga and the upper Phongolo River in KZN. These rivers can provide plenty of action at recognised venues and when conditions are favourable. It is said that the Nkomati provides good dry-fly fishing for both smallscale and largescale yellowfish when the river is at low to moderate flow levels.
Smallscale yellowfish co-exist with species that include Bushveld papermouth, largescale yellowfish, Mozambique tilapia, canary kurper, sharptooth catfish and several mudfishes. When fishing for smallscale you may, inadvertently, hook any one of these fishes, except that sharptooth catfish usually prefer larger flies.
Conservation status: Least Concern.
Range: Labeobarbus marequensis is a beautiful, deep-bodied fish and, as its common name suggests, it has noticeably larger scales than the smallscale yellowfish which is often found in the same watersheds. The largescale prefers the warmer stretches of rivers, generally below an altitude of 600 metres, although they occur in the Highveld region too. They are still present in reasonable numbers in most rivers, except those draining Gauteng and those in the west of Mpumalanga where water pollution is a problem.
Size and Mass: Largescale grow to 47 centimetres and 6 kilograms.
Habitat, Season and Behaviour: As for L. polylepis.
The largescale is probably the most difficult of all yellowfishes to catch on a fly. In many of the rivers it inhabits, the reed-lined banks hinder conventional casting. Under these circumstances, a double-taper floating line is the preferred choice, as it roll-casts better. A 3- to 4-metre leader, tapered to a 3X or 4X tippet is ample. Cast across, or across and downstream, and try to get the flies to drift as close as possible to the bottom. This species is notorious for its gentle takes so watch your line and strike as soon as you feel or see any unnatural movement of the line. Largescale yellows are partial to bloodworm imitations which are even more effective when fished in tandem with a small mayfly-nymph imitation in black, brown or olive. In large sandy pools a small dragonfly-nymph imitation, fished close to the riverbed to suggest a burrowing natural, works very well, provided the water is clear and you can see the fish. Cast your fly onto the sandbank and wait for the fish to approach the fly. When it gets close, twitch the fly to imitate a dragonfly nymph trying to escape. You can also take largescale yellowfish on dry flies that imitate grasshoppers, caddis and mayflies. They are active all day long, but early mornings and late afternoons can be memorable if there are insect hatches and the fish are rising freely.
The SA angling record for L. marequensis is 5.75 kilograms.
As for L. polylepis.
The smallscale yellowfish and its companion fish species.
Conservation Status: Least Concern.
Range: This moderately sized yellowfish, locally referred to as the scaly, is found throughout Kwazulu-Natal from the Mkuze River in the north to the Mtamvuna River in the south. In summer, it overlaps with trout in the headwater streams of the Drakensberg, and, in ecologically healthy rivers, it extends downstream to the coastal estuary zone.
Size and Mass: Under normal conditions, L. natalensis reaches sexual maturity after 4 years at a fork length (FL) of about 30 centimetres. It can attain at least 70 centimetres and a mass of 4 kilograms.
Habitat: Most fish overwinter in large deep pools, and move into riffles, rapids and glides from late September onwards. As the water warms, there is a larger migration of adults to the best spawning areas which may be several kilometres upstream. Sub-adult and adult fish generally occupy headwater streams from October onwards. Juveniles are usually found in shallow riffles and backwaters of pools.
Season: Rivers with KZN yellows are characterised by high water levels from October to March, when they are generally turbid and unfishable. The so-called 'tailwater fisheries' - stretches of rivers directly downstream of impoundments - are notable exceptions. The dams (such as Midmar, Albert Falls and Inanda, to name a few) act as settling ponds that allow turbid water to drop its sediment load and, in consequence, they discharge relatively clear water. This extends the fly-fishing season significantly. Fishing is best from March to October, when most rivers are lower and clearer, and the fish have gathered in pools.
Behaviour: Adult fish are omnivorous, feeding mainly on aquatic insects, crabs, tadpoles and small fish, but also consume algae and fine aquatic plants. During the warmer months, they often forage in loose groups or small schools that move into the shallowest riffles in early morning and early evening, to prey on aquatic invertebrates. In between, the larger fish generally return to deeper glides and pools. In winter, when the fish have schooled in pools, they cruise around and provide exciting opportunities for sight fishing.
Labeobarbus natalensis and L. aeneus prefer the same habitat and behave in a similar manner, so it is not surprising that you can catch both using the same techniques and in comparable environments.
Fly size is perhaps more critical, and black and olive nymph patterns, ranging from #12 to 16, are generally more effective. Your primary choices should be flashback nymphs, Copper Johns and Gold-ribbed Hare's Ears, but green or mustard caddis imitations and bead-head bloodworm patterns can also prove effective.
The SA angling record for L. natalensis is 4.628 kilograms.
Although once regarded only as a bait-fishing quarry, there is now rapidly growing interest in catching this fine gamefish on fly. You can expect excellent fishing on rivers such as the Bushmans, uMgeni, Mooi, Thukela and Mkhomazi in the midlands region of Kwazulu-Natal.
Kwazulu-Natal rivers are home to a variety of other fishes that may take your fly. In summer, yellowfish gather in the headwater streams to spawn, and it is then possible to catch one while fishing for trout. In the middle to lower reaches there are several mudfishes, including the Tugela labeo (Labeo rubromaculatus, endemic to the Thukela catchment), Mozambique tilapia, catfish, carp and bass.
Conservation Status: Vulnerable, thus mandatory catch and release.
Range: The second-largest true yellowfish in South Africa, L. capensis, is found only in the Olifants-Doring River system in the Western Cape. It was widespread in this catchment before the introduction of smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu) in the 1930s, but over the last 70 years its distribution range and population size have declined drastically because of the impacts of alien fish species.
Size and Mass: The largest specimen recorded was 98.7 centimetres long and weighed 10.66 kilograms.
Habitat: Clanwilliam yellowfish are endemic to the winter rainfall region of South Africa which is characterised by high water levels from April to September, and very low flows in summer. Even big rivers like the Doring cease flowing during this time. Adults generally frequent large deep pools, preferring those with an abundance of rock ledges and aquatic and fringing vegetation. They also enter riffles and rapids, especially in spring and autumn. Juveniles are usually found in shallow riffles and the backwaters of pools.
Season: The best seasons are spring and autumn when the weather is settled and the rivers slightly on the high side. Fishing on an incoming cold front is generally poor. An excellent time to try for Clanwilliam yellows and sawfin in the Cederberg is immediately after a light southeaster has blown in Cape Town for a few days. Summer can also be good, especially early morning (05:00 to 09:00) and early evening (18:00 to 20:00). The winter months, from mid-May to early August, are best avoided, as river flows are high and the water cold. Fish spend this time in deep water under large boulders, away from the current. Refrain from fishing in November, the key spawning month of this threatened fish.
Behaviour: Adult fishes are omnivorous, feeding mainly on aquatic insects, crabs, tadpoles and small fish, but also consume algae and fine aquatic plants. They invariably hunt in small groups of four to 10 fish, which cruise pools searching for food. As the water is usually very clear, cruising fish are very alert and inquisitive, and also very spooky at times.
Before fishing for L. capensis, you should ask yourself whether the river or dam you intend fishing has a sustainable population of fish. This is essential because the population has diminished so drastically that many rivers or river stretches are now completely devoid of this magnificent gamefish. If you are satisfied, your first move is to find a pool that is deeper than 2 metres and has abundant cover. If the water is clear, or reasonably so, look for cruising fish - they are usually found along the banks or near the head or tail of the pool. Once you have seen a fish, your chances of hooking it improve substantially
Do not make the mistake of immediately showing your hand and casting to the first fish you see. Try to find a spot where you are out of sight, have a clear view of the water and will be able to cast when the fish is close enough. If you have chosen the correct position, the fish, or pod of fish, should soon swim into casting range. You now have to place your fly at the right place and right depth without alerting the fish to your presence. This means you have to cast the fly so far ahead that, ideally, the fly will have sunk to the depth of the fish just ahead of the intercept point. This can be tricky in a pool that may be as much as 2.5 metres deep. Assuming all has gone according to plan, you now twitch the fly slightly to mimic the movement of the creature you are imitating. This often results in the fish (or one of the pod) darting forward and taking the fly. Set the hook immediately and play the fish forcefully, but carefully. Clanwilliam yellowfish use dirty tactics and the first run, usually to an escape lie, will be memorable. If you do not see any fish but you are still confident that they are present, cast towards likely holding water, allow the fly to sink and retrieve it in a manner that mimics the movements of whatever yellowfish prey you are imitating. If necessary, vary the retrieve until you find one that is working. This tactic is also effective in dams when you cannot see any cruising or feeding fish.
Clanwilliam yellowfish are sensitive to line flash so use a drab-coloured floater for surface fishing and a clear intermediate for subsurface work. A 4-metre leader tapered to 3X or 4X is adequate but in very clear water fluorocarbon may improve your chances. Dragonfly- and damselfly-nymph imitations, and #6 to 10 brown, olive-and-black Woolly Buggers perform well on larger fish. For stream fishing, build your collection around mayfly nymph patterns as well as a few #12 to 14 Gold-ribbed Hare's Ears and Zak Nymphs. Some of your flies should have bead heads but be careful of too much flash - black beads are best for clear water. Clanwilliam yellowfish are rarely caught on dry flies, but if you see them rising, try to ascertain and imitate what they are feeding on. Failing this, try a #10 or 12 DDD or grasshopper imitation.
The SA angling record for L. capensis is 5.679 kilograms.
On rare occasions, artlure anglers still catch a big Clanwilliam yellowfish at Clanwilliam and Bulshoek Dams, but it should be obvious that there are unlikely to be many hot spots for a species which is classified as Vulnerable. A few privately owned dams have very good populations of L. capensis and the fish are relatively easy to catch. Bushmanskloof Private Nature Reserve in the Cederberg has a large dam with excellent Clanwilliam yellowfish and sawfin, but anglers are required to stay overnight at the five star lodge in order to fish.. You may also try the following websites: www.fosaf.co.za or www.piscator.co.za for guidance on where to fish. If it's river fish you're after, you are likely to have more success at one of the following venues: the upper Olifants and Ratels Rivers at Beaverlac, the Doring River at De Mond, the Driehoeks-Matjies Rivers at Sanddrif, and the Rondegat River. For upcountry visitors, we recommend that you use a fishing guide or an angler with local knowledge of these yellowfish waters to maximise your chances of success with these elusive fish.
Clanwilliam yellows usually school with Clanwilliam sawfin, a smaller species discussed later in this section. If you fish the main stems of the Doring and Olifants, expect to catch much more smallmouth bass than yellowfish. Largemouth bass, spotted bass and trout also share the waters with Clanwilliams in places. Certain dams in the Kouebokkeveld have been stocked with Clanwilliam yellowfish where they now co-exist with trophy rainbow trout. You can also expect local waters to yield carp, bluegill sunfish, Mozambique tilapia and sharptooth catfish. The latter have only shown up in recent years following illegal stocking into dams in the Olifants System.
For additional details, see also the description of this species in the Tigerfish chapter. THE EDITOR
Conservation Status: Least Concern
Range: Recorded from the Okavango and upper Zambezi (above Victoria Falls) River catchments. Size and Mass: Attains 3.2 kilograms (Skelton, 2001).
Habitat: According to Wikipedia: "They prefer fast flowing water over cobble and rocky bottoms where they predominantly feed on aquatic insects and crustaceans. Their exaggerated fins help them manoeuvre in the fast water and they are powerful swimmers".
Season: It stands to reason that the prime time to catch L. codringtonii will coincide with that of the fishes that share its habitat. Under normal climatic conditions, Malcolm Meintjes considers the season on the upper Zambezi to last from June to November, with the period June to August deserving particular attention.
Behaviour: This species is also a large-scaled yellowfish and, by inference, closely related to the Lowveld largescale yellowfish. Adult fish school and are omnivorous.
Waters that harbour upper Zambezi yellows also have crocodiles and hippos, so use a local guide and be very cautious if you decide to wade.
At the moment the only fly fishers who are likely to target L. codringtonii specifically are those who are keen on catching all the yellowfish species. The reason for this is that most anglers fishing its native waters are focusing on tigerfish, Africa's most charismatic freshwater fly-fishing quarry. Considering the expense and time involved, it is unlikely that they will willingly divert their attention to yellowfish. There is, therefore, not the extensive background on tactics and techniques as for the other yellowfishes. All things being equal, however, one would infer, that it should respond in a similar manner as L. marequensis, so start off by using the methods that are appropriate to that species and follow your head from there on.
No specific hot spots have been identified but focus on favourable habitat throughout its range.
See the tigerfish chapter for a full description.
Conservation Status: The species is listed as Endangered due to drastic declines in its distribution range and population size over the last 70 years because of the impacts of alien fish species. Catch and release is mandatory.
Range: The sawfin is not a true yellowfish (Labeobarbus), but it bears close resemblance in morphology, colour and behaviour. Like the Clanwilliam yellowfish, it is only found in the Olifants-Doring River system where it was widespread and abundant before the introduction of smallmouth bass in the 1930s.
Size and Mass: It can attain at least 60 centimetres and a mass of 3 kilograms under ideal conditions, but most fish caught range from 100 to 500 grams.
Habitat: Clanwilliam sawfin inhabit the winter rainfall region of South Africa, characterised by high water levels from April to September, and very low flows in summer. Adults generally frequent large deep pools, preferring those with an abundance of rocky ledges, aquatic and fringing vegetation. They also enter deep riffles, especially in spring and autumn. Juveniles are usually found in shallow riffles and backwaters of pools.
Season: The same as for L. capensis. Avoid fishing in November, the key spawning month of this highly threatened fish.
Behaviour: Adult fishes are omnivorous, feeding mainly on aquatic insects and small crabs, but also consume algae. They generally eat smaller prey items than the larger and more powerful Clanwilliam yellowfish. Adult sawfin, generally forage in small groups of four to 10 fish, and sometimes school with Clanwilliam yellowfish, cruising pools in search of food. As the water is generally very clear, cruising fish are alert and inquisitive. Unlike Clanwilliam yellowfish, sawfin will often take a fly with the angler an obvious presence. If fish are feeding aggressively, the sound of the fly landing in the water and the glint of the bead head as it sinks is usually sufficient stimulus for one of the fish to rush forward and snap up the fly.
You generally catch sawfin while fishing for Clanwilliam yellowfish, so obviously both species respond to the same techniques and flies. However, if you want to target sawfin specifically in smaller streams, you should use a 3- to 4-weight rod, floating line and a 3.5- to 4-metre leader tapered to a 5X point.
Sawfin are generally easier to catch, perhaps due to their more inquisitive and bolder nature. Specimens over 500 grams usually head for open water and put up a spirited fight. If you catch a sawfin, no matter what size, remember that you are holding an endangered fish, which should be treated with extra care when releasing it.
Considering their size, sawfin take surprisingly large flies, particularly imitations of dragonfly and damselfly nymphs. In small streams with smaller fish it makes sense to use small flies such as #12 to 14 mayfly nymph imitations, Gold-ribbed Hare's Ears or Zak Nymphs. Sawfin are rarely caught on dry flies, but if you see them rising, find out what they're taking and try to imitate that as closely as possible.
The SA angling record for sawfin is 3.04 kilograms.
There are few hot spots for this endangered species. One is the beautiful small Ratels River at Beaverlac that carries a sizeable population of sawfin. There are several dams in the Ratels catchment that have been stocked with sawfin and Clanwilliam yellowfish. Land-owners provide camping and chalet style accommodation. A guide is recommended to increase your chances of success.
The same as for Clanwilliam yellowfish.
Conservation status: They are listed as Endangered but would be Critically Endangered were it not for the large population in Brandvlei Dam near Worcester. It goes without saying that catch and release is mandatory for this fish.
Range: The Berg-Breede whitefish, locally called whitefish or witvis, is also not a true yellowfish (Labeobarbus). It is endemic to the Berg and Breede River catchments of Western Cape. The once abundant population has dwindled to the brink of extinction since the introduction of smallmouth bass in the 1930s. It is almost unthinkable now that there were government campaigns to reduce their numbers to benefit alien species such as trout!
Size and Mass: The whitefish is a splendid, deep-bodied bronze fish, often with salmon coloured pelvic and anal fins, especially in breeding season. It can attain at least 80 centimetres and a mass of 7 kilograms.
Habitat: Whitefish inhabit the winter rainfall region of South Africa. They prefer larger rivers and unlike Clanwilliam yellowfish and sawfin, adults never live permanently in small streams-they only migrate there temporarily to spawn. Unfortunately, the larger rivers are now home to a variety of alien species and the chance of ever catching one in its indigenous home range is almost zero! Whitefish are now only found in reasonable numbers in a few dams, with the most abundant population in the turbid Brandvlei/Kwaggaskloof Dam near Worcester.
Season: As for Clanwilliam yellowfish. Avoid fishing in November when this highly threatened fish spawns.
Behaviour: Adult fishes are omnivorous, feeding mainly on aquatic insects and small crabs, but they also consume algae. Where they are still present in their native range, they swim in schools of up to 50 fish of different age classes. As water is generally clear in their natural habitat, cruising fish are very alert and inquisitive. In Brandvlei Dam, which has the largest population, the water is very turbid and the chance of catching a whitefish on fly is slim.
Most fish are being caught in dams with good whitefish populations. Here, you should concentrate on rocky areas with drop-offs and look for cruising schools. If nearby bait anglers are catching whitefish (usually in Brandvlei Dam), concentrate your efforts in the same area (with due consideration to the bank anglers) and you may be lucky to catch the next whitefish before they do!
Large whitefish are exceptionally strong and a fish over 1 kilo will give you a fight to remember. As you will be targeting them specifically, stick to a 4-weight outfit with floating and intermediate lines. The intermediate line will only be used when fishing blind in dams. A leader of at least 4 metres tapering to a 4X point is best with the floating line. Switch to a lighter tippet if you know whitefish are around but are refusing the fly.
Whitefish are tough to catch, but well worth the effort. Takes are usually very gentle, so you should watch the leader or fly line for the slightest movement or the slightest resistance when retrieving the fly. Your best chance of catching whitefish is when you can fish to a feeding school. Present the fly gently about 1 to 2 metres from the edge of the school and retrieve it slowly. Whitefish are dirty fighters so be cautious of submerged obstacles and weed beds. If you know the water you are fishing harbours whitefish but you don't see any, then probe all potential holding water. Allow the leader to sink and retrieve the fly actively. In rivers, cast across the current and fish the fly close to the bottom for best results.
Your best flies are those that imitate mayfly, dragonfly and damselfly nymphs in #12 to 16. Darker flies are more effective in turbid waters.
The SA angling record for whitefish is 3.47 kilograms.
Sadly, there aren't any at present for this highly threatened fish. Your best bet is to focus on Brandvlei Dam where there is a sizeable whitefish population and is open to anglers from the Nekkies resort which provides accommodation .
Whitefish are almost extinct in their natural habitat but those that remain unfortunately 'share' their home with a number of invasive alien species, such as sharptooth catfish, carp, bluegill, rainbow trout, Mozambique tilapia and smallmouth and largemouth bass. In these waters expect to catch lots of alien fish and very few if any whitefish!
Conservation Status: Near Threatened.
Range: Barbus rapax closely resembles the true yellowfishes (Labeobarbus) and it has the same range as L. marequensis and L. polylepis.
Size and Mass: The papermouth attains 1 kilo under ideal conditions but most fish caught weigh between 100 and 300 grams.
Habitat: Papermouth prefer slow-moving water with an abundance of plant cover and so it is not surprising that they thrive in dams, so long as the feeder streams have suitable spawning areas.
Season: They are generally caught during the warmer months from September to May provided the water is clear.
Behaviour: Adult fish are predatory and feed aggressively in small schools on minnows, juvenile fish and aquatic invertebrates, especially in early morning and late afternoon.
Waters that harbour papermouth will also hold largescale and smallscale yellowfish but the reverse is not necessarily true. Focus on known hot spots and fish likely holding areas in early morning and late afternoon. Focus on areas next to reed beds, weed beds and drop-offs, where papermouth gather to forage, and keep an eye out for any chases.
Papermouth actively prey on minnows and small fish so streamers such as #10 to 12 Woolly Buggers and Strip Leeches are first choices, but don't hesitate to try damselfly or large mayfly nymph imitations.
The SA angling record for papermouth is 1.355 kilograms but most fly-caught specimens are a tenth of this size.
Your best bet will be to fish a dam with a guide or friend who knows where to find papermouth. The following dams had, or still have, acceptable numbers of the species: Arabie, Hartbeespoort, Loskop and Vaalkop. It is said that the Crocodile River below Hartbeespoort still holds papermouth in places.
Papermouth co-exist with largescale and smallscale yellowfish and their companion species.
Most of the yellowfish flyfishing establishments that follow, are located on the Vaal River and provide fishing facilities for largemouth and smallmouth yellowfish.