We had ventured into the Lesotho Highlands in search of smallmouth yellowfish, drawn not simply by the fish but their propensity, in these waters, for rising to dry flies, in particular large terrestrials. The venue is one of very few locally, or perhaps in the world, where one has a realistic chance of tossing a dry fly at fish that could go to 8lb plus.
Guide Pierre, hooks into a decent yellowfish in a pocket in what I dubbed “The Skate Park” section of the Bokong River.
Smallmouth yellows, with their sub-terminal mouths and generally murky habitat aren’t generally given over to feeding on the top, preferring most of the time to grub on the bottom for nymphs and larvae hidden under the boulders of the river’s substrate. However they will come to dries if conditions are right, either there is a solid hatch on the go or the water is clear enough for them to find surface food, particularly where subsurface dining opportunities are limited. The latter is the case up here in Lesotho. Outside of thunder shower induced spates the waters of the Bokong and Malibamatso Rivers run gin clear and the prevalent food source for many of the fish are the hapless hoppers and flying ants that find themselves caught in the drink.
The fish migrate up into the streams during the summer months to spawn and linger in the river system for some time, with new arrivals entering the system and spawned fish returning to the Katse Dam on a sort of rotational basis. Unfortunately our trip was at the back end of the season when the numbers of fish in the system was waning, the river dropping towards skinny winter conditions and the temperatures falling to a point where although comfortable enough for the anglers was getting on the chill side for the fish.
Fishing is always something of a gamble, in this instance go earlier and there is a higher risk of the streams being blown out by summer thundershowers which muddy the water, albeit temporarily or leave things later and see the fish numbers dwindle as the water cools and drops. Our initial foray on the afternoon of our arrival suggested that we might have left things a bit too late, few yellowfish in the river and the water getting chill in the mornings We caught a few trout and hoped for better in the coming days.
Fortune favours the brave so they say and on the second morning although there weren’t hundreds of fish in the river there were some and we were able to cast our flies at sporadic chances to often difficult to spot fish cruising in the clear waters.
It wasn’t however the easy angling that we thought we might enjoy, the fish were few and far between and as nervous as long tailed cats in a roomful of rocking chairs. My first throw at a cruising yellow resulted in a spectacular and panicked departure on the part of the fish and it was time to re-evaluate.
In the end we settled into a workable game plan, 20’ plus leaders (I was using a varivas flat butt leader as a base and it performed wonderfully in the swirling and ever changing breezes of the highlands), and either a dry fly or dry and dropper set up.
The fish proved to be very leader shy the shadows cast on the bottom of the stream appearing like anchor rope spooking more than a few fish as we tried to refine things. We were caught up in the all too frequent conundrum of the clear water angler, go light to get more takes and risk breakoffs or go heavier and get less takes. The guides here recommend 3x tippet, for those who don’t know, yellowfish are remarkably strong fighters and the rocks of the stream very prone to cutting through tippet during the fight. I managed to land a few fish on 6x terminal tackle and certainly could illicit more takes by going finer but equally lost more than a few fish to violent takes or abrasion from the rocks. In the end for me a moderately happy compromise left me with 5X Stroft on the end of the leader
Presentation and caution were critical factors, curve casts to keep the shadow of the line and leader away from the fish important and all of that more than a little tricky because of the behavior of the fish. Yellows tend not to “hold” like trout do and move constantly even when feeding, so not only does one have to be accurate, delicate and precise with the presentation but one also needs to be pretty quick about it too. More than a few opportunities were lost because a slight delay, a tangle or whatever when getting into position is enough to see one’s quarry amble out of range before the angler is ready.
It could all have proven more than a little frustrating but for the total excitement of seeing a very large fish gently hone in on the fly and take it off the top. Because yellows have whose underslung mouths the take of a dry is frequently rather awkward and splashy, for any dry fly aficionado, to see a massive boil where moments before one’s hopper pattern rested gently on the mirrored surface of the stream is enough to get one’s heart racing. Perhaps even more dramatic would be those occasions when the fish would spot the fly, cruise over with a purposeful demeanor only to nudge the pattern with its nose and turn away. If the rarified atmosphere at 3000 meters isn’t enough to push up your pulse rate, those refusals will definitely do it. One had the impression that cardiac arrest might not be too far away on some occasions.
The yellows weren’t the only available targets, some of the crew sought out large trout that inhabit the dam and others spent time targeting surface feeding yellows along the cliff lines casting from a float tube to rising fish or likely haunts. For me , it was the river that I wanted to fish and although the fishing could have been easier and the fish more prevalent, one could hardly suggest that it was poor.
Perhaps some of the most exciting dry fly fishing that you could ever experience, analogous one imagines to the stonefly hatches that bring large fish to the top in the Western streams of the US or the Cicada hatches that offer similar opportunities for large trout in New Zealand. In the end though, whilst this trip might be seen as going to the end of the world, for us at least, one need not travel half way around it to find some exceptional fishing.
I fished a #3 9’6”-10’00” Grays XF2 Streamflex Plus mostly with the extension piece fitted.
A RIO Gold #3 double taper floating fly line with 15’ Varivas super Yamame flat butt leader with a coloured indicator section buit into it and a compound tippet of 4,5 and sometimes 6X Stroft. The colour of the Varivas leader was toned down by soaking overnight in tea. The tip of the RIO Gold LT line was cut back as I found the long front taper didn’t work well with the long leaders I prefer to use.
A sage click III reel.
Boots and wading:
Vision Loikka Gummi sole wading boots and lycra pants or easy wading.
Waterproof Back pack from ATG
The trip was organized by Pieter Snyders from Flyloops and we stayed at the Torrette Fishing Three Rivers Camp on the Bokong River in Lesotho.
The author runs Inkwazi Flyfishing Safaris, Cape Town’s only dedicated flyfishing guiding service.
For some great fishing on the streams of the Western Cape, or perhaps a trip after yellowfish on the Orange River check out the Inkwazi Flyfishing Website at www.inkwaziflyfishing.co.za