Malcolm Meintjes

You probably know the fly I mean as a "Zonker", another example of onomatopoeic name-calling conjured up by a six-year old mind. I knew it and still refer to it as a "Rabbit", an extremely popular series of flies that dominated the New Zealand flyfishing scene two decades and more ago.

Those were the days when matuku, pukeko, rabbit and killer-style patterns ruled the roost. The "killers", in particular, swam their way across the seas to the African continent with great success; others, such as the matukus only made fleeting acquaintance in the form of the Walkers Black Widow and the Parsons Glory. Few will recall any pukeko patterns, but with the importing of Kilwell flies for a short time, the Scotch Poacher made some inroads and, at Golden Gate in the Seventies, deceived one of the best conditioned double-figure trout I have ever seen.

More precisely, and more recently, I resurrected the memory of blissful days spent on a little North Island jewel-lake called Okataina. It was there amongst the native forests that a fly called a Yellow Rabbit provided success. In July, I thought it appropriate to introduce the, by now, almost-forgotten Yellow Rabbit into the unfamiliar waters of the Upper Zambezi.

If I have an idle thought about some "tiger" flies, it is that they are invariably excessively ample in their plumage. I confess a preference for sparser dressed patterns more suggestive in character, which require no pruning of feathers and bucktail to lease some "breathing space". Tied on sturdy long shank hooks from size 2 to 8, the fly must have life of its own.

For tiger fish, a pattern incorporating a combination of bucktail colours, such as that which makes up the Kasai Tiger, is a popular and successful approach, but the Yellow Rabbit is an ideal addition to the armoury because it retains a slim, yet alluring profile. In the water, the rabbit fur trembles, suggesting the perfect small fry imitation. At the same time it is robust enough to handle the ministrations of tiger and winter bream alike.

July, as I so often remark, is an exceptionally pleasant time to take a flyrod north of the Limpopo. Though each day dawns flawlessly with perhaps a light cloud cover up high, the air is cool, though sometimes more than fresh when travelling by boat upriver. And the evenings are less inhabited by small beings that whine and don’t carry fishing rods.

In the past, the Winter months were neglected by anglers because it was accepted that tigers preferred hot weather, but while the Summer months produce some excellent catches, the reverse is certainly not true. Indeed, with respect to flyfishing, many of my most memorable experiences in the Okavango and Zambezi have occurred during the Winter months from mid-June onwards.

This year the flooding of the Zambezi has been generous, reaching levels not seen for many years, but by late June, one could see the tell-tale fall-back watermark on the reeds. The river at Impalila Island was receding and soon an exodus of fish and their progeny from the floodplains and into the main watercourses would take place. When it did, there would be much gnashing of teeth.

The first overt signs were, as usual, the birds. How it happens, is a mystery. One day, nothing unusual, the next, an air of expectancy. Herons and egrets begin to line the banks, while cormorants and darters appear in flotillas along the backwaters.

On the second day, half-an-hour upriver from the Lodge we spied grey-backed gulls wheeling and diving in mid-river. Beneath them, splashing betrayed fast-moving tiger fish feeding in the cross-river current.

The morning belonged to my boat partner’s spinner. While my fly was infuriatingly snatched and discarded, on a light spinning rod he landed a fish of seven pounds going on ten, losing another of similar size at the boat.

As so often happens, fortunes change and the afternoon turned to the fly. First a tiger of 13 ¾ lbs (6.3 kg) that picked up my Plewman’s Robber (black, red and white bucktail) and then further downstream under the nose of the gulls, one of 11 lbs. (5 kg) that even Raoul, miffed at being outvoted on the weight of his fish, conceded looked bigger.

The Yellow Rabbit? Since Plewman’s performed so well on that day with five notable tigers, the Rabbit wasn’t required so we’ll never know whether it would have matched up in the circumstances. But, on succeeding days, as myriads of fry slid back into the river, there was no doubt that its slender litheness was preferred to the flaring streamers. In a remarkable debut, it abandoned its trout heritage and performed with tiger, nembwe, threespot tilapia, pink happies and African pike.