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Hunting Yellowfish on the Orange River

Words and photographs by Gero Lilleike (unless otherwise stated).

It’s a well-known fact that South Africa is home to some of the most pristine fly fishing waters in Africa and the world. The sheer number and variety of locations and fish species afford the keen fly fisherman a lifetime worth of bucket list fishing opportunities, but only if you take yourself seriously…

I don’t really.

Well, not as a fly fisherman anyway.

I’m certainly keen and I’ve dabbled in the art long enough to appreciate and love the act when it occurs, however rare an occasion as that may be. 

In Golfing terms, I would be referred to as a “weekend hacker” but seeing that my fly rod mostly gathers dust in my garage for much of any given year, I am not entirely sure if there’s a term for my kind in fishing speak? A chancer, perhaps?

I digress. 

The Orange River is Yellowfish paradise. Photo: Gavin Erwin

Just over a year ago, I found myself adrift on the Orange River somewhere between Vioolsdrift and Aussenkehr on a 5-day paddling trip. It was a marvelous adventure and miraculously, I remembered to pack my fly rod – dust and all.

At the time, this incredible place was overwhelmingly beautiful and I couldn’t fathom the significance of the fish that lived in this spectacular river system.

For those with a particular penchant for targeting largemouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus kimberleyensis) and smallmouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus aeneus), yes, I had to Google that, few places in South Africa are more lucrative than the Orange River.

But not for yours truly. Not on that particular trip… 

Alone at the wall. Photo: Gero Lilleike

My trout-biased fly box was woefully under-equipped, much like me and ultimately had little to no relevance to the fish curiously eyeing me out from below.

Day 3 passed and I still hadn’t caught a single fish.

Out of sheer desperation and with great shame felt towards the fine art that is fly fishing, I gave in to the friendly instruction of, Erastus, my local Namibian guide.

I baited my fly.

A wooly bugger, with a piece of dough to put an end to my undying misery.

The result?

I caught my first-ever smallmouth yellowfish on the Orange River!  

It was a shamefully embarrassing result. I know. But I had learnt my lesson the hard way. 

That non-event, much like 2020, in fact, brings me to the purpose of these words.

A tale of revenge of sorts…

Gavin Erwin working the Orange River. Delightful! Photo: Gero Lilleike

 I’m fortunate enough to be acquainted with well-known South African fish artist and fly fishing enthusiast, Gavin Erwin

Plying his trade from his studio in Johannesburg, Gavin is a humble man. He’s a notably talented artist and an equally talented fly fisherman with a long and successful history of fishing that spans just about all of his 35 years on earth. Gavin and his long-time fishing compadres, Sean Bisset and Jason McIntosh were planning their first summer strike mission on the Orange River and somehow, I managed to crack an invite along with Gavin’s brother, Steve Erwin, who ironically is also an established car artist from Cape Town.

The opportunity to return to the Orange River was impossible to resist.

The river was calling and I had a score to settle…

Gero Lilleike with one of many… Photo: Sean Bisset

Weeks before the trip, Gavin offered to tie the flies necessary for success and this was something I was hugely grateful for, especially considering my glaring ignorance a year earlier. Needless to say, a bread fly was simply out of the question for this trip! 

Gavin’s fly-tying efforts were concentrated on three main fly patterns including a fine selection of nymphs, colorful weighted streamers and for the entrée, a delectable crab pattern.

Gavin assured me that the yellows would “smash” these patterns and I couldn’t have been more excited to see that happen. 

The Orange River is a source of life in this arid desert landscape. Photo: Gero Lilleike

Gavin and his crew made the long journey from Johannesburg to Vioolsdrift while Steve and I drove north from Cape Town. We met Gavin and Co at Oewerbos River Camp on the South African side of the Orange River. We shared a few cold beers as the sun set over the barren but exquisitely beautiful landscape that defines much of Namibia.

For this mission, we would focus our combined energy on the waters to the east of Vioolsdrift with the guidance of an experienced Orange River fishing guide, the ominously-named, De Villiers Uys. 

With gear at the ready, we set off on a dirt road that led us to a well-known and over-fished weir where we would open the tallies, proper. We spread ourselves out across the numerous pools and it wasn’t long before our nymphing efforts paid off with a few decent-sized smallies in the net from Gavin, Sean and Jason. Steve soon followed suit, as did I, with perhaps the smallest smallmouth of the day. 

A Blue Kurper caught and photograpghed by Gavin Erwin.

A largemouth yellowfish alludes most and it’s for this very reason that it’s known as the “fish of a thousand casts”, but here, on the Orange River, that’s far from true. Sean netted the first largemouth of the trip with seemingly little effort and Gavin followed up with a sizable Mozambique tilapia (Blue Kurper) in his net. We returned to our cabin fulfilled and the celebratory beers went down ever-so sweetly. 

The next day we returned to the weir, but this time we also had our sights set on the biggest catfish we could find. De Villiers assured us that monster catfish lurked in the pools at the base of the weir. Sean hooked into the biggest barbel of the trip…by far, it was huge! Gavin hooked another in one of the upper pools and handed me the rod to bring it in. I was amazed at how powerful these fish are! 

Sean Bisset with a beauty! Photo: Gero Lilleike

With a full moon keeping watch over proceedings, we spent the evening session throwing out crabs in the shallower runs and the some decent yellow specimens found their way into our nets. Another glorious day on the Orange! How could it possibly get better than this, I wondered?

De Villiers Uys had another ‘Uys’ up his sleeve and he was keen to take us further up the river to waters only accessible by boat. The next morning, De Villiers rigged up two inflatables and we all piled in for a slow 10 km splutter upstream.

The hunt is on! Photo: Gero Lilleike

Surrounded by only dry, rocky mountains, a nourishing river, blazing heat and not another human in sight, these were remote waters. The yellows were ‘smashing’ our nymphs viciously the moment lines hit the water! 

Each fight was cherished but we soon lost count of how many fish we had caught. Hours passed but we had to get back to base. We chased the sun back straight into a headwind, arriving at the weir cold, wet and satisfied at yet another successful day on the river. 

We knew this fishing trip would be amazing, but none of us expected it to be so magical. For me, this truly was a fishing experience of a lifetime and I couldn’t ask for much more. I had caught more fish than I have ever caught. Ever!

That’s the point, right?

Moonset on the Orange River. Photo: Gero Lilleike