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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

Fishing the Orange River

I’m a sucker for a good outdoor adventure and in my experience, immersing yourself in nature’s flow is perhaps the most rewarding and therapeutic experience you can give yourself, especially if you are in need of mental and physical rejuvenation. Nature, after all, is a wonderful healer… 

It’s no surprise then that my excitement escalated when my equally wonderful wife decided to book a 5-day river rafting adventure on the Orange River. 

This was a bucket list travel experience and I couldn’t wait to finally do it! 

Enjoying the view from the boat on the Orange River. ©Gero Lilleike
Paddling on the Orange River is a relaxing experience for the whole family. Photo: Gero Lilleike

The Orange River forms a natural border between South Africa and Namibia and a 7-hour drive from Cape Town got us to the border post at Vioolsdrif which is a stone throw away from Bundi Lodge near Noordoewer where we would start our river adventure.   

If you’ve ever been to Namibia, you’ll know, it’s hot, arid and desolate. The Orange River is a source of life here and plant and animal life is abundant along the river’s banks and as an enthusiastic fly fisherman, I was hoping to catch a fish. Any fish… 

We were due to paddle a total distance of 85 km over 5 days, but with low seasonal water levels, we would only be doing 65 km, which is a fair distance for 2 amateur paddlers.   

We were, however, accompanied by experienced and resourceful river guides, Patrick and Erastus, who would ensure our safe passage on the river. 

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With views like this every day, the paddle is worth it! Photo: Gero Lilleike

With camping gear and supplies packed and loaded on our boats, we set off down the Orange River. Paddling quickly becomes the norm as the reality of the distance sinks in. Despite the aches and pains, you simply have no choice but to keep pushing on! A headwind is your worst enemy on the water and when it arrives it can make paddling exceedingly difficult and torturous as you fight for every metre gained.

For the most part, we had stunning conditions for paddling and the water was exceptionally clean and clear. The harsh landscape is oddly pretty and the vibrant colours of the dry and rocky mountains stand in stark contrast to the greenery along the river. 

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Anyone for a cup of tea? Mmm… Photo: Gero Lilleike

Camping next to the river and sleeping under the stars is a particular highlight considering that the higher temperatures negate the need for a tent. 

Nonetheless, having a tent is recommended if you are worried about creepy-crawlies paying you a visit in the middle of the night… 

Other campers were apparently forced into their tents when Red Roman spiders were doing the rounds in their camp! 

A troop of noisy baboons kept us up one night with their loud barks that echoed eerily through the warm night while an owl hooted in the moonlight from a nearby tree. Sleeping in the wild definately makes the experience more exciting!

Erustas knows how to catch fish on the Orange River. ©Gero Lilleike
Erastus with the day’s catch. This man knows how to fish! Photo: Gero Lilleike

If you love fishing then the Orange River is paradise. A wide variety of fish species call this river home and some of these include smallmouth and largemouth yellowfish, carp, barbell, bass and kurper.

Erastus has been a river guide for 24 years and he has extensive fishing experience on the river. I was amazed at how successful his fishing exploits were. He was regularly hauling in fish and enjoying his catch over an open fire every evening. What a champion!

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Perseverance does pay off in the end. Photo: Patrick Engelbrecht

By the end of the trip, I had caught 4 different species of varying sizes while some of the fish were simply too big to catch on my tackle and bent hooks were evidence of this. It goes without saying, there are some monstrously-large fish lurking in the Orange River, so be sure to come prepared. 

I was also intrigued by the names given to some of the rapids on this section of the river including Morning Shower, Rocky Waters, Snotklap, Root of Hell, Scorpions Tail and the biggest rapid on this route, Sjambok. Despite their ominous names, we found the rapids to be relatively easy to navigate, which makes this paddle a great option for families. 

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Sjambok rapid can be tricky if you get it wrong. Photo: Gero Lilleike

Remember to pack lots of eco-friendly sunscreen and don’t forget to wear protective and light breathable clothing. On most days, the mountains literally bake and the heat can be stifling. We experienced temperatures close to 50°, but thankfully the river is always close enough for a refreshing dip. 

The Orange River was our home for 5 days and being in this remarkable place was both grounding and humbling. This adventure is easy to recommend and if you are in need of nature’s magical healing powers then you know what to do… 

Book your Orange River adventure with Bundi here!

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The landscapes in this part of the world are breathtaking. Photo: Gero Lilleike