The last week of September marked the end of our second stint for the season on the Lower Orange River. This gifted the guides with some valuable time off, before the next guests arrival, to prospect the river and enjoy some down time. Coupled with this opportunity, the weather seemed to finally stabilise and show some consistency along with the water levels and clarity improving simultaneously. All things were pointing in the right direction as excitement amongst the guides ran sky high. Fly boxes didn’t take long to fill in anticipation for what was to come. It was go time!
We had caddis hatches, dragonflies in and around the boats, baitfish visibly schooling in the slack water and at long last the mud fish spawn on our paddle down to the first pool. It was alive. It’s an unbelievable change, how a system of that caliber can change so drastically and over such a short period of time is incredible.
Before we knew it, camp was setup, rods rigged and anchors down, we were fishing! We were in search of deep tailouts and slower glides in search of largemouth yellowfish staging to spawn. Getting flies deep and fishing a slow swing was the order of the day.
We had the perfect tailout out right below camp and below a large rapid which looked too good to pass up. Tap, tap, tap as flies were skimming the tops of rocks across the tailout, surely. Tap, tap, pull – yes! On. Voices amongst the guides were bouncing off the canyons, “good fish!” After a dogged and tedious fight, we managed to put a stunning 8lb smallmouth yellowfish in the net. It wasn’t the largemouth we were looking for but man what a special fish it was. The fish was loaded with battle scars and character, a big female. We knew we were onto something. Cast, mend and back into the rocks. Tap, tap, strip, in. Again! A stunning juvenile largemouth. They were evidently schooling, both smallmouth and largemouth yellowfish in the tailouts. We proceeded to have an amazing afternoon of fishing in just one tailout landing numerous largemouth yellowfish, however, no adult fish despite the smallmouth.
We had a recipe going into the next day building the excitement that little bit more as we put our feet up and enjoyed a cold beer around the campfire. Whilst settling into nightfall, we could hear pandemonium in a small tributary that ran along side our campsite sandbank. The barbel had pushed into these channels in pursuit of the spawning mudfish in the shallow water. It truly was a spectacle!
The next day proceeded to be the same from the get go, however, it didn’t last long… the fish had moved off or simply gone down as the morning progressed. We were back to puzzling. So we decided to head back to camp and enjoy some down time. We have the large tailout one last crack for day and it was back on! There were evidently very specific feeding windows or windows when the fish moved into the tailouts. The fishing made sense again! “Surely we’ve got a pattern here…”
Phil came paddling over in some sort of a panic… “oaks get up here now, things are taking off above the rapid, you have to come see this!” We were there in a second, anchors up, boats beached and back on the steaming hot rocks. “Holy hell,” was ushered quietly amongst the guides as we stood in awe. We were gazing upon what looking like a narrow freestone stream, except with no trout in sight, just massive barbel inhaling what they could amongst the spawning mudfish and smallmouth yellowfish. Phil threw a large streamer amongst them on the seven weight, in an almost nymphing fashion. It must’ve been in the water for some three seconds before a large female smallmouth jumped all over it. The fish tore off in knee deep water up river in a serious hurry! Phil managed to control the fish before it wrapped him around any rocks or overhangs. The fish was in pristine condition, absolutely fin perfect and a deep gold all over. It was then Oli’s turn, he placed the fly in the same place whilst letting it drift towards, keeping as much tension as possible. Right in front of his feet a stunning largemouth snatched at the fly, also proceeding to tear off. Except this time running out the rapid and into some serious moving water. After plenty of swimming and rock jumping, Oli was able to subdue the fish and get it in the net. 8lbs of largemouth yellowfish in some seriously unsuspecting water. We managed to enjoy the rest of the carnage with some solid smallies and a bunch of juvenile largemouth. It was an awesome experience!
The following day we heading up to the same spot at first light, eager to se the same action unfolding. It was not to be… once again, gone. They didn’t show themselves for the rest of the day like the day before. Just as we thought we were onto something. We decided to push down river in search of new water. However, on the way back down we stumbled across smallmouth yellowfish staging on top of a large sandbank in fast flowing water. The first time we’ve been able to sight fish the whole season. We were weak at the knees! It didn’t take Phil long before set into a great fish on a flexo. We were experiencing a special time to be fishing the Orange River, it was magical to say the least!
As every good TV show suggests, we were into our last afternoon, still in search an adult largemouth yellowfish. All three guides setup anchor in front of our last proper tailout. Fishing was slow as the wind died with heat cranked all the way up. Things got muggy, but still we plugged away in hopes of that big fish. We had put in a couple of hours on the boats with not much to show for it. These were trying times. Just as we were about to move off, the line went tight deep in the V of the tailout. With good head shakes and a solid first run we were pretty sure who the culprit was… the fish stayed deep hugging the cliff faces, refusing to lift its head. Finally we got the fish’s head up – we weren’t wrong! Within seconds of coming to the surface, we had the fish in the net. A solid largemouth, no giant but solid, falling just shy of the 10lb mark. There were smiles all round, we knew if we put in the time we would be rewarded!
Oli and I then staked out the tailout waiting for the lowlight hours whilst Phil headed now to prospect the next head. It felt like an eternity, waiting for the shadow of the vast nearby mountain ranges to cast their shadow over the tailout. There we were, on a rock island in the center of the tailout, just observing. We were watching every little rise and splash around us, waiting for that penny to drop…
It was time! The heat had subsided and the fish were noticeably more active in the pool above the tailout. It felt fishy, very fishy. We swung our flies over every rock and across the tailout for at least half an hour with nothing to show, it felt almost anticlimactic. Which is harsh to say as we found ourselves in one of the most beautiful parts of South Africa. We were in the moment, looking for that one fish.
“That was a bump!” I was convinced. Oli peered over the island to where I was on the opposite bank, in dead silence. I made another cast, sinking the fly deep into a narrow shoot just left of the main current. One strip, second str… on! The head shakes started immediately, we knew it was him. The fish tore across the tailout! We knew it was a good fish! Exactly like the other, the fish stayed deep in the main channel, refusing to come up to the surface. The fish wasn’t done as it peeled line another twenty meters out the tailout, anticipation was growing exponentially! Within a second Oli was by my side, net in hand. I was reassured despite the nervous shakes! The head came up and man were we excited! It was a good largemouth in the dying moments… 13lbs of absolute happiness and relief. The hard work had payed off in a fashion we had planned since the first afternoon. We were completely over the moon with high fives and shouting echoing through the valley…
What happened next couldn’t have been scripted. Oli picked up the rod and swing the same fly through the tailout, it didn’t take him long before the line went tight in the same narrow channel, the fish nodded its head powerfully as it turned and shot out the tailout. The fish sadly managed to pop the leader in the few few meters of the run. There was silence. “That was a good fish Timmo,” ushered Oli. Fishing can be a cruel beast at the best of times. That didn’t put Oli down. He immediately strapped on the same pattern and swung it through the same tail. After the first men’s the line went tight, Oli drilled the fish with a big strip set, making sure the hook was in. This felt different, this looked heavy, but seriously heavy. Twenty minutes later and a smoking reel, we were still wondering. What have we got ourselves into… Oli remained patient put maximum pressure on the fish whilst turning the fish each time it headed towards the tailout. It was tense! Oli squeezed in a little more pressure and managed to get the head up… we were all blown away by the size of the Sharptooth Catfish that Oli had just raised. It was a true giant! A fish of a lifetime in those circumstances. Speechless we were.
Oli took the remains of the hook out the fish’s mouth. The hook had been bent as if a GT had gotten ahold of it! I doubt there could’ve been any more pressure applies to that fish without suffering upsetting consequences. That was a true beat down from both parties!
There we were, floating down the last 5 kilometres of our guides drift on our last morning feeling physically broken yet so mentally recharged, we all felt somewhat liberated after what we had all experienced! Oli wasn’t done though. You learn this about him very quickly. He never gives up, soldiering on as he pushed to the last tailout. Phil and I put our feet up after anchoring our boats just up river from Oli whilst we relaxed and watched the show. Well, it didn’t take him long. Oli’s line went tight. The first run was blistering… this caught both Phil and my self’s attention like nothing before! We perked up in our seats whilst we watched Oli do battle again. He wasn’t shy after the Barbel, that was evident yet this fish still managed to peel line. “Here we go with round two!” This was different. This fish was fast, not settling in the current once. “It’s a smallmouth, a tank!” screamed Oli. We immediately lifted anchor and joined him as the fish neared the boat. “Are you sure that’s not a largie?” shouted Phil. “Bru, it’s a legit smallmouth!” were the words from Oli. We couldn’t believe it. Only made a quick jump with the net, securing what looked like a fantastic largemouth yellowfish. When he turned around, fish slung in the net, our jaws dropped. 10lbs of smallmouth yellowfish were staring us all in the face, it was cosmic! What an absolute giant of a smallmouth. A trophy in every sense of the word.
After that moment, we knew it was time to head home. We couldn’t have asked for more during our time off, we experienced everything we had wanted and more. It was incredible and the best time off ever spent by us guides. Pure soul food.
Here’s to the next few weeks as we cannot wait to welcome the following groups of guests to the Lower Orange River. The river is coming alive, that’s for sure.