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

by Scotty Kyle

Our fishing trip to the Orange River (click to jump to Part I) was drawing to a close. We had had fun, seen wonderful places, caught fairy well (although had not yet caught any smallmouth yellowfish over 60 centimeters, my target). We had also learned a lot, namely, that fishing the same place for the same fish can change markedly from one year to the next. 

My daughter-in-law is a teacher and so our outings are tied to the one week school holiday in October. Last year the holidays fell on the end of the month, while this year it was at the beginning, three weeks earlier. This made a great difference, as South Africa was moving from winter to summer and yellowfish are basically a species that feeds mostly in summer. The previous season the fish were in full “summer mode”, eating every day; this year our results were erratic: we caught over 40 in one day, but then only two the next. It looked like the fish fed aggressively in fast rapids, but less enthusiastically at the tail end of rapids. 

Having discussed all this in true fisherman fashion, we decided to move to another spot where we had caught well the previous season. We broke camp and headed downstream, sneaked down a dry riverbed, over some rocks and through some bush to the river. Drat! I could not believe it – there was someone fishing there! Two, no three, no, at least four people. The final straw was, when we saw through binoculars, that they were a group of guided fly anglers with boats. We found out that these people drift down the river and had GPS coordinates of the best spots. Our dream of trying out our secret spot, after a year of no fishing pressure on it, was shattered.

The rest of the team went fishing upstream but I decided to wait for the boat fishers to move downstream so that I could move in. I waited and waited but they stayed put. I fished some side gulleys, had fun and even caught some nice fish but I really wanted to fish the run and pool where the boats were. By lunch time they had moved down from the rapid and I decided to walk down and begin to fish above them and try to gently move them on. They had had more than enough time to fish the area and I felt it was only fair to allow me a shot.

boats on the river
“Our dream of trying out our secret spot, after a year of no fishing pressure on it, was shattered”

I decided to walk down to near the river about 100 meters above them, as they were in the calm water below the rapid and to fish the run. The water was quite clear and shallow, though fast running, so I bent low and approached the river carefully. When still a distance from the water I stripped some line and made a side cast into shallow water right at the edge of the rapid. I saw a movement in the water – a fish from deeper had seen the fly and rushed in towards it. I held the line tight allowing it to grab the fly. Then, while still keeping some strain on it  I let the line be pulled rapidly out through my fingers. I stood up and the line went out and out, clearly a nice fish and in a hurry. 

The line kept peeling off and soon we were onto the backing and still it went out, downstream towards the boats. There was a large rock near the other side, but the fish fortunately stayed my side of it and, instead, headed towards another large rock deeper in. By now it was about 50 meters away and I gently but firmly increased the strain on the line to keep the fish my side of the second  rock. It worked, but there was no way that fish was going to come back up into the rapid and so I scrambled after it, down to within 30 meters of three boats who were busily moving around the large pool using electric motors. It was a good fish, possibly a very good fish and playing mostly deep and far out, but slowly it came closer until all my backing line was in. Then out again as the fish moved strongly away using the current. The boats, thankfully, moved further off and watched what was happening.

The fish slowly and erratically came in again and, once more, the backing was all on the reel and then finding the current again we inexorably again ended up deep on the backing. At this point something upstream caught my eye and I saw two more boats coming rapidly down the run towards me and my fish. They saw what was happening and pulled out on the Namibian side so as not to  disturb my fish. I had not realised that I had waded deep into the pool and there was lots of weed around as well as submerged rocks and some branches.  My knees were shaking quite a bit from the cold and excitement and, in the worst way, I wanted this fish to quietly come to the bank but it was not yet to be. Out it went once more, found the current and headed for the Atlantic Ocean. It was, however, tiring, as was I, but with a fairly strong 10 lb nylon tippet and because yellowfish do not have teeth, I felt confident to put more strain on it. Eventually, in what seemed to be a few hours but was probably nearer 20 minutes, I managed to bring  the fish close to the bank and then to thankfully glide on its side onto a small pebble beach. 

The three boats downstream moved off and the ones upstream made a fire and something to drink, while I stopped shaking and looked at my beautiful smallmouth yellowfish. Not the fish of a lifetime but the fight and circumstances were very memorable and the fish was indeed over the magical 60 centimeters. It was in fact 61 cm. Sadly, the family were far upstream and so I had to take a quick photo and let the fish go.

A smallmouth yellowfish
A nice smallmouth yellowfish

Wow, what an experience and the day was not yet finished. I went back up to the spot, sneaked in again, cast again and WHAM, exactly the same a second time! I couldn’t believe it. There I was again, losing lots of line as the fish headed downstream and I rapidly stumbled and tripped over rocks to follow it. The fight was similar and I think we went onto the backing twice, round the wrong side of one of the rocks and into the calmer water of the pool. I managed to land this one, a beautiful 62 centimeter specimen, a little more rapidly and the three boats downstream had disappeared.

What else was there to do but go back and try again? This time there was no immediate response to my fly in the water but, as I cast into a small backwater behind a rock, another nice fish took. It played well and I managed to land it as well. Casting again behind a different rock, I hooked another. I caught five fish from the bank in quick succession then walked about 20 meters upstream to the top of the rapid. There I waded out into the river and cast downstream into the fast flowing water. I had a wading stick but the river was quite deep and about 30 meters wide. Each time I hooked a respectable fish I had to struggle, carefully but in quite a wobbly fashion, over large rocks, through fast flowing water well above my knees back to the bank and play the fish from there. 

I caught a few more fish but nothing over about 55 centimeters and then Amy, my daughter-in-law, arrived. I suggested she try the original spot and immediately she was onto a nice fish. She landed that one and then hooked another and then another.  The biggest fish had clearly dominated the run and now the fish were getting generally smaller but still mostly well over 45 centimeters. Then, inexplicably, it went quiet – not a bite or any sign of a fish. Together we had caught about 15 really nice fish in this ordinary looking stretch but we had no idea if this was luck, perfect conditions, a pre-spawning aggregation, skill or what. 

Who says you can’t catch a carp on a fly?

As an aside, the South African smallmouth yellowfish may look like a carp but the resemblance stops at the superficial level. They are about as related as a Lamborghini and a Dodge pickup truck. Yellowfish, of which there are nine species in South Africa, are sneaky, wily, alert, strong, apparently intelligent and are indeed very worthy “foes”. There are, however, many carp in the Orange River and some are truly massive. The best way to catch them is to carefully drop a fly literally into the mouth of one feeding on the surface in a weed bed. A struggle then ensues but nothing compared to that with a much smaller yellowfish. Trout were also brought into South Africa for sport fishing but, in recent years, are being eclipsed by indigenous species such as yellowfish in some areas.

tying flies
Some serious fly tying

Amy and I headed back to camp, very satisfied after a truly wonderful day’s fishing in the Orange River in the Richtersveld. There we found my son Robert busy tying a complete new set of the massive, articulated, specialized flies he uses for the legendary largemouth yellowfish that lurked in the same river. He had been crafting flies for months before the trip, using last year’s most successful color, which was white. This year, however, back seemed to be in vogue. Above anything else, fly fishing in the Orange River in Richtersveld is very unpredictable, but very exciting and usually rewarding.

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