While one's first impression of Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland) is that it has a great deal of the Kalahari desert in it's midst, out of the north-west corner flows the Okavango river and forms a delta. More colloquially known as "the swamps", this area is a personal favourite and is a birder and anglers delight. While there are plenty of tigerfish in the river and lagoons of the Delta, there are also countless numbers of bream and the toothy African pike. In addition, towards the last few months of the year, there is an annual catfish (barbel) run, which is a highlight, as it brings literally everything in the Delta to life.
Guma Lagoon lies on the western panhandle section of the Delta and...well...you can catch just about everything here if you put your mind to it and persevere.
If you've been thinking about visiting and consequently researching the fishing in the Okavango in advance, have a look at "An Okavango Season" which tells you everything you want to know about this fantastic area.
Though yellows were caught on fly in Southern African waters at the turn of the century by British army officers practicing their flyfishing, it is only relatively recently that greater interest has been shown in the species. One of the main areas of interest is the Vaal river system, but like most rivers, one has to wait for the right conditions.
Another area that shows great promise is that of the Lowveld where winter fishing for large- and small scale yellows takes place on quite a scale.
One of the tricks of the barbel is to provide much activity at the surface, which often fools the angler into fishing there. It is thought that the barbel only comes to the surface to get air and dives straight down to the bottom again. Those anglers fishing deep or with a sink-tip line may well end up with more success than their surface counterparts. The flies that appear to be more productive are those that have a fair covering of hackle and which put up something of a vibration when retrieved.
When one talks of "bream", it unfortunately carries with it an implication of a group of fish unable to command respect in their own right. Africa has countless different "bream" but some are very deserving of attention. It would be impossible to list all of the species, but some are among my favourite fish on fly - and don't make the mistake of thinking that they're all tiny fish. The largemouth bream species such as the nembwe (below), for example, can reach up to eight pounds and the fly-caught specimen below, of 7 1/4 lbs was indeed a good fish. However Serranchromis robustus, also known as a "robbie" by Zim anglers is regarded as one of the Winter species and as you surmise from looking at that mouth, is an ambusher. By the way, the river in the background is the Zambezi above the Victoria Falls.
There are, of course, many more types of largemouths, but a second "bream" grouping is the tilapia, which have in turn been sub-divided further. But I draw the line here and draw instead your attention to the threespot tilapia (Oreochromis andersoni) which is one of the hardest fighters you'll ever have the pleasure of deceiving on a fly.
Strange, the average size in the Okavango can be a very respectable three pounds, but it's rare to hook one that gets to five pounds. Still with fish that size on a light 5 weight flyrod, you can't ask for much more.
You've no doubt heard of the mighty mahseer which is found in India and Nepal? Barbus tor is it's Latin handle. Grows to massive weights and draws those adventurous of nature into its lair. Africa supports many Barbus species and I fear that I know a little more about those found south of the equator than elsewhere.
What makes these fish attractive, apart from a naturally golden outline, is that they are fast becoming a very sought-after resource. Flyfishers who enjoy bubbly stream nymphing cannot sing the praises of the smallmouth yellowfish (Barbus aeneus) too highly. The average size of these stream fish can reach 2 - 3 lbs and there is a very good chance of getting something closer to 5 lbs. Finally, you never know but they do reach generous double-figure weights.
The heavier chap by reputation is the Largemouth yellow (Barbus kimberleyensis) which does share habitat with the smallmouth, but down near the South African - Mocambiquan border (known as the Lowveld), there are two more species - the largescale and smallscale variety - while in Natal there is the scaly and in the Cape, the Clanwilliam yellow, witvis and sawfin. The latter three are more scarce today.
These fish are good fighters. Though they seldom jump, they are powerful and give an excellent account of themselves with long runs. Most angling has been done in running water, but there are some reservoirs, such as Sterkfontein in the Free State, which show great potential and excellent smallmouth specimens are taken regularly.
I know I wouldn't be forgiven if I neglected to mention another of our indigenous species, the Clarias or catfish family - once known as barbel.
They are prolific in all but trout waters and how I wish they were a little more handsome for they would then attract a much larger following. They grow to huge sizes and put up a dogged fight on fly tackle. In the Okavango however they are responsible for one of the wonders of angling - the annual catfish run when hundreds, even thousands, of catfish make their way upriver and stirring the entire Delta to life.
The anglers are not primarily after the hordes of catfish though one now and again does take the fly or lure. No the anglers are after the big tiger fish that swim on the outside of the run.