past articles written by Malcolm Meintjes

(Author of Zambezi Tiger, Remarkable Flyfishing Destinations of Southern Africa, Trout Through the Looking-Glass and other titles)

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                                                    PANNING FOR VAAL RIVER GOLD

When I wished for it to “rain soon”, it was not with the expectation that the heavens should open the day immediately following, foiling a plan that had been hatching happily with the advent of warmer days.

 The plan, cunningly revealed to no one lest fate intervene, was to take compass to the Vaal river for a spot of yellowfish on the fly. I manage less time than I would like, stumbling across boulders in search of Barbus aeneus (nee holubi), so I was looking forward to the trip, despite it being, some might say, a touch early in the season. 

The fish I sought specifically was the smallmouth yellowfish, as distinct from a number of other yellow-species  all of which deign to take a fly occasionally. Now I rather like the smallmouth yellow for his looks, the electric tussle he puts up and the generous average size that one can encounter in no more than midriff-deep water. On the other hand, I don’t recall any aerial displays and certainly any culinary promise is far outweighed by an awkwardly designed bone structure. The revenge of the yellow, I have heard it called.

 My sub-conscious had been hard at work, searching for a break during the week, for the one drawback about fishing the Vaal below the Barrage is the inconsistency of expecting reasonable water conditions. In this regard, both nature and man combine to make life exceedingly difficult and is one of the major setbacks to the traveling flyfisher. Of course, it’s not the fish’s fault should a thundershower muddy the water or that the Barrage be opened to increase the river's flow to near-flood levels. But it can make even setting up a rod a hit-and-miss affair. A journey of anticipation can easily become a disappointment at the first sight of a turbid river.

 Flyfishing for yellowfish is not new. It was practiced in the late 1800s and there are reports of anglers taking some wonderful specimens. Then it seems to have fallen into general disuse, only during the late 1970s being resurrected by a few stalwarts. 

My own endeavours to catch yellows on fly started in the mid-1980s. Since schooldays I had been a member of the Rand Piscatorial Association (formerly - much formerly - the Transvaal Trout Acclimatisation Society) and they had acquired some water below the Barrage on the Free State side. It was the bottom end of the stretch that eventually caught my fancy. One day, idly contemplating nature under the leafy boughs of a willow, my reverie was interrupted by canoeists who made merry for a race oblivious of my presence. To avoid the sudden crush, I relocated to the bottom end of the beat, where the river scattered into islands and runs; fast water where few Club members ventured. 

Absent-mindedly almost, I remember thinking how like a trout river, this piece of water looked and, still standing on the bank, brought the ever-present fly gear into action.

I remember it being a floating line and - what else - a favoured Walker’s Killer. It was mid-afternoon in March 1985 and I was mildly surprised when the line whipped around as though it had snagged one of the many sub-surface rocks. Fortunately, it turned out to be a yellowfish no more than 800g but it impressed greatly with the fight in the fast water.

 Nor was it the last, for another trio of golden smallmouths, feisty kilogrammers, behaved in exactly the same fashion. All left me with an appreciation of a fine species and an inkling of the flyfishing possibilities that existed.

I have fished the river less than I would have like to over the years, more by reason of the vagaries of the water flow than anything else. When conditions are reasonable, however, searching the runs and riffles for fish that commonly weigh between 1 - 2 kg (and sometimes more) is an outing to savour. You can choose your weapon too. I have caught them on floaters and sinkers, on largish Black Marabous and tiny Pheasant tail nymphs and in a fascinating variety of reaches.

 The favoured water is the faster run, but take care to investigate the weedy fronds that line the banks of the islands. The water is seldom crystal, but do not be surprised to see a floating grass stalk that waves across the current. It is a yellowfish up-periscoping.

 Unless you be one of the short pants and tackie brigade, don’t forget your waders. One invariably has to polaroid carefully across the multiple river channels to enjoy the experience more fully. 

I never did get to go last week. I wished for rain and it was provided. A cold front ushered in to ensure that the day would be overcast and blustery. Yet if a hot spell warms the cockles and the water clears, I shall yet pan for Vaal river gold.


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