To the Orange River in Richtersveld, South Africa: Part II

By Scotty Kyle

From a satellite, the Orange River meanders like a long green snake through extremely rugged mountains and forms the border between Namibia, in the north, and South Africa, in the south. A true African river, it passes through habitats of many Africa’s large, charismatic animals, but in the Richtersveld area the Orange River has no hippopotami, crocodiles, lions or elephants and indeed very little game of any sort. It does, however, contain very large fish surrounded by some of the most remote and magnificent terrain on the continent.

As told in the previous part, our family, six of us in a Toyota Hilux doublecab, arrived at Sendeling’s Drift, the Richtersveld National Park’s Headquarters, in October after an almost non-stop 22 hour road trip of 1 800 kilometres. There were 6.5 days of extreme fly fishing and fun ahead.

First Blood

Desperate to make the most of every minute, we quickly headed to the river just upstream of the camp to get our flies wet and begin our Odyssey. While my family were keen to target largemouth yellowfish, which can grow to 15 kilograms, I was happy to just catch “nice” fish on my medium weight fly rod. I was going to target smallmouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus anaeus), which can grow to a respectable weight, on tiny flies I make myself and that I use to catch Natal scalies (Labeobarbus natalensis). In the meantime everyone else headed off further upstream to a spot where they had caught largemouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus kimberleyensis) during our previous visit.

I fished and fished but, despite seeing a few nice fish moving in the river, didn’t even get a tug. The water was quite clear and, as I could see some nice looking fish close to the bank in deepish water, I tried casting upstream. I basically crawled along the bank and, from as far away as possible, cast my fly up above the fish and let the 3 mm tungsten eye bead sink the fly down among the fish. On about my fifth cast I got a result! It was a solid “take” and the fish went strongly out into the main stream and headed for Namibia and freedom. This seemed like the dream beginning of my fishing holiday and, as I played the fish, I wondered just how many wonderful fish I would catch.

The fish played strongly and well, but not rapidly, and, after the first run, seemed to run out of steam. After about a five minute fight I managed to bring the fish carefully to the bank and, using a landing net, as I really did not want to drop the fish at that stage of the game and not be able to show everyone a photo, scooped the fish up and out. It was not a yellowfish at all but a “mudfish” (Labeo capensis) – a good sized one to be sure – but they are toothless and are usually not among the top targets of sport anglers. It’s difficult to get too excited about something that does seem to eat mud but it was a good fish and a start. We had just begun the holiday and the first mudfish had taken a fly I had made myself.

A decent Orange River mudfish

I fished on until it was time to go back to our chalet at the camp and I did manage to hook several fish and land two more. Sadly, both of these were also “muddies” and had been “foul hooked” in the dorsal fins. It was clear that there were shoals of mudfish close to the bank in backwaters and, although it was quite good sport, it was not what I was after. Sadly also, everyone else had had excellent sport and caught some really nice small-mouth yellowfish. I thus kept fairly quiet that evening but listened closely to what they were saying and, particularly, about how they had fished.

When chasing Natal scalies we usually use two small flies on a cast but they were using much larger flies. The boys, particularly, had been using very large, sometimes “articulated” flies of startling colours and designs. They targeted really large fish at the cost of not attracting as many smaller ones but that was their choice and their calculation. The girls had used medium sized flies and so I also decided to compromise. I would still use a two fly cast but, while one was small, the tail fly would be a much larger, darker fly. I am very conservative. For scaly fishing, I make and use only one pattern of dark “nymph” fly with a size 12 hook while, for trout, I mostly use a home made “Mrs. Simpson” fly on a size 6 or 8 hook.

Home-made, not much but they work, a small nymph and a modified Mrs. Simpson.

Although the river runs through the Park for about 100 kilometers, the road only comes down to it at a few points and driving along the river, where it is possible, can be rough on the vehicle and passengers. We thus decided to spend another night at camp but drive about 30 kilometres upstream to a place called Potjiespram. The trip is not too bad, but you have to climb up and through Akkedis (lizard) Pass, which can be a delightful and wild experience. It is a mass of boulders and normally large numbers of beautifully coloured lizards watch your progress like lookouts on the tops of many rocks along the road. This time, however, there had been a terrible drought and, despite an average rainfall of about 60 mm, they had had less than this in total during the last five years. Desert plants, evolved in and for the area, were dying and lizard numbers had clearly crashed. Many of the roads are a 4×4 enthusiast’s paradise but we mostly just wanted to get to the best fishing spots.

The Orange River is the northern border between the Richtersveld National Park, in South Africa, and Namibia.
Previously, the fishing at Potjiespram had been very good and so we anticipated some excellent sport. The river is quite large and you can rarely cast right across although careful wading can usually allow you to cross at rapids. On earlier trips I had found a couple of excellent spots where fish seemed to lurk and I looked forward to trying them again. There was even a “Dad’s spot” where I had been very fortunate before but, today, it was not to be.

Since our last visit there had been a long dry period with no floods and so silt and sediment had built up and water weed had grown up and clogged much of the river. It was not easy to find open water areas and it was often necessary to clamber over large rocks to reach the open water and landing a decent fish was clearly not going to be easy. Many fish make maximum use of cover or obstacles of any kind but yellowfish, bless them, usually do not. You could wade far out into the river and cast out over the weedy areas into clear water, hook a nice fish and it would usually completely avoid the weeds and even rocks.

“Dad’s spot” proved useless due to weed but I waded further out into deeper, clear water, and cast out into the current and, first cast, wham! A nice smallmouth yellowfish took my fly just as I was about to end the cast and I had loose line in my hand, in the water and around my legs as I tried desperately to tighten the line and set the hook properly. I managed and, fortunately, the fish pelted right across the clear water but did not enter the weeds on the far side, turned and came back. It played hard and deep but simply would not go into the weeds or any cover. After a fairly brief but powerful fight I brought the fish right to me and, as I had a landing net, scooped it up and took it to the bank. It was a typical Orange River small-scale yellowfish, a beautiful bright yellow colour with large scales.

The author’s daughter-in-law with a nice smallmouth yellowfish

Everyone struggled to catch fish here in spite of them wading out chest deep in the weed filled water to cast into the more open current. We all caught nice smallmouth yellowfish, mostly of fork lengths of high 40’s and into the 50 centimeters but no 60 centimeter plus fish. In short it was good, actually great, but still not as good as it could be and so that night we decided to make a move.

The glory about camping in Richtersveld is that it is safe. There are no other people, except a few friendly, semi-nomadic herdsmen and no large, dangerous animals. You may be hours away from actual help or backup but, except from very unlikely accidents, there are few immediate threats and so it is the best of places to unwind, relax and really enjoy the natural wonders of the earth. And catch amazing fish.

The next morning we broke camp and headed through the middle of the National Park to De Hoop campsite, again on a beautiful stretch of the river. We parked on a soft, grassy bank right next to the river and began to fish, setting up camp could be done later, in the heat of the day when the fishing was usually not so good. We split up and I went upstream, to a likely looking spot, and cast out into a nice clear, deep, fast running piece of water. I caught a couple of reasonable yellowfish but no large ones and no large-mouths.

When it was almost time to head back for lunch and to set up camp I took a last cast just above a steep, very, very rocky, tumbling cascade of water that ran down almost to our camp. As the fly drifted close to my bank, very close to the top of the run, something grabbed the fly and simply took it down deep, where it sat for a few seconds, while it worked out its game plan. Having thought carefully it then simply came to the surface, looked at me and then curled downstream and glided over the lip of the rapids and headed for the ocean one hundred kilometers downstream. Panic. I was in deep, fast flowing water with large round, very slippery boulders but I really did not want to lose this fish.

I scrambled, bumbled, tripped, fell and tried to follow the fish. I dropped my wading stick, lost my balance, sense of humour and even, once, dropped my rod briefly but the wonderful fish stayed on the line. The family were downstream and could probably see me so this was going to be a glorious, or very inglorious, moment for me. Camp, and calmer water, was about 300 meters away and the fish seemed well hooked but the rapids were difficult and I dinged and scratched my knees repeatedly as I scrambled over huge rocks.

Just when I thought that, if the fish was going to come off it would already have done so, the line went slack and my heart stopped beating. Nothing, the fish was simply no longer there. With my poor heart still pounding again from the excitement and injuries, I looked downstream to my family and the camp. When I arrived they asked what on earth I had been doing, they thought I must have been having a fit or been stung by a bee so erratic seemed my behaviour.

The camp below De Hoop, a soft grassy bank right beside the river in the middle of nowhere.

They had done much better, some really nice smallmouths had been caught and even some fairly decent large-mouths. We ate, set up camp, and that afternoon we all caught some nice smallmouths but we learned a lot about the river conditions, more about what flies worked and where exactly the fish were lurking. Tomorrow, we would have everything in place and I would show my offspring that the old boy still had some tricks up his sleeve. Nothing could possibly go wrong!

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