Orange River Yellowfish in South Africa

Brian Griffith, our inside man on all things fishing Africa, has another report for us on yellowfish, but this time on an exciting development on fishing for the elusive largemouth variety of yellowfish (Africa’s fish of a thousand casts) in the Orange River of South Africa. Enjoy!

Having fished most of Tourette Fishing’s (recently renamed African Waters) destinations throughout Africa I finally managed to try their Kalahari largemouth yellowfish venue.  I’m happy to report that it was a good experience and was by far one of the best values I’ve ever had for a fishing trip.

When I first booked this trip it was originally scheduled to be a five-day/six-night float trip down the Orange River in the northern cape in western South Africa.  As the trip neared I was contacted by one of the owners, Keith Clover, and told I was the only client that week.  As such it did not make logistical sense for one angler to float as both a guide and camp staff would be necessary.  He asked if I was amenable to staying at a lodge on the Orange which he assured me would not only be comfortable but would provide more actual fishing time on the river.  I was a bit disappointed to not be sleeping under the stars but the prospect of more actual fishing time was certainly appealing.

The Orange is South Africa’s largest river at 2460 km in length. It flows along the southern edge of the Kalahari Desert, and is one of only two rivers in South Africa that boast a fishable population of largemouth yellowfish (the other is the Vaal).  South Africa has 9 species of yellowfish and largies are the biggest of them all. They are top of the food chain predators in this river system as there are no crocodiles here. The river also boasts a healthy population of smallmouth yellowfish, sharp tooth catfish, carp, and three species of bream.

Upon my arrival at Upington—a one-hour flight from Johannesburg—I was met by James Kirsten and we made the one hour drive to Khamkirri Lodge on the banks of the Orange River. I was expecting a fairly rustic setup but was pleasantly surprised to find a newly renovated lodge with 8 chalets. After checking in, I was shown to my own chalet to settle in and unpack. The place was lovely.  A porch overlooked the river, and there was a kitchen, living room, and bedroom with a king-sized bed, air conditioning, and its own bathroom. Certainly the accommodations were a lot nicer than camping along a river!

James suggested going fishing that evening even though that was not officially part of the itinerary so I strung up my 7-weight rod with an intermediate line and we headed out to see what might happen.  Moving about on the river we used an inflatable canoe.  It was easy to maneuver through the rapids (nothing too intimidating) and shallow stretches but did leave a bit desired when it came to fishing from the seat.  This improved when we were out for a full day and had a cooler wedged into the front to sit on.  As we approached some rock structure sticking out of the water James advised me to cover the upstream side of it and then once we got to it we would get on the rocks and cast out into the current allowing the fly (mostly #6 baitfish imitations) to swing downstream with a very slow strip once it reached the bottom.

Largies are generally ambush predators that lurk around structure or near the bottom waiting for baitfish to swim by.  I don’t think there is a huge population of them and they are fickle so there is a reason that South Africans call them the fish of a thousand casts.

That evening I did get a bump on the first rock and later along the bank had a take by something that broke my 16-pound test leader but overall the action was pretty slow. We got back to the lodge just before dark for drinks and dinner. Throughout the week the food was outstanding. This is Afrikaans territory and the Afrikaaners love their meat. The amount of green on the plate left a little to be desired but the offerings were very tasty and beautifully presented. Khamkirri Lodge is a family-oriented place that provides a nice variety of outdoor activities.  The majority of guests I met there were there for paddling and hiking but there were a few people that were fishing for catfish (which get huge). There were no other fly fishermen there. Indeed, throughout the week I did not see one other fisherman on the river.

Each morning we would have breakfast at 7 and be driven upstream varying distances and then float back down to the lodge stopping at likely looking holes.  If close enough we would have lunch at the lodge but generally, lunch was along the riverbank.  On my first morning, I did catch a very nice smallie of 6 pounds, a mudfish, and a juvenile largie of about 4-5 pounds.  It was a lot of casting but when James told me it’s not uncommon to go a week without a touch from a largie I was pretty satisfied.  Primetime for largies is between 9 and 12 so that afternoon we stalked bream (also known as tilapia).  There are times of the year when I was told you can’t put a fly near a bream without a strike.  This was not one of those times.  They were incredibly spooky and laid in shallow backwater areas filled with lots of weeds.  Mostly what we saw were schools of bream leaving wakes as they bolted whenever we got within 50 feet of them.  It was frustrating, but addictive fishing.

On days 2-4 the pattern was similar.  We would fish James’ favorite spots (he used to be a paddling guide for Khamkirri) for largies then when the frustration levels got too much we would switch to smallies and/or bream.  The smallie fishing was extraordinary.  I’ve fished for smallies twice before in Lesotho, and there the crystal clear water made stalking and presentation of paramount importance.  The Orange has a bit of color to the water and I had smallies take the fly within feet of where I was standing.  The fishing was mostly with nymphs and strike indicators on a 4-weight rod.  The average size made the Lesotho smallies look like runts.  There were several days where I landed 20 smallies ranging in size from 1 to 9 pounds.  Of the 20 largest smallmouth yellowfish I’ve ever caught 19 were on the Orange. It was great fun and when you add in the bonus of actually catching (as opposed to foul hooking) mudfish of up to 10 pounds I thought it was stellar fishing.

The weather throughout the trip was perfect.  Daytime temperatures in the 80’s with lows at night in the 50’s.  There is no humidity there on the southern border of the Kalahari.  The winds were a bit more pronounced than normal which James felt contributed to the slow largie fishing but was never unmanageable.  Fleeces were the order for the mornings but by 9 we were wet wading and were very comfortable. There are no mosquitoes there although there were some small biting flies that only attacked us from the knees down.  A knee-high pair of neoprene socks or long pants easily solved the problem.

As the week progressed the largies were just not cooperating.  I continued to fish for smallies and bream I the afternoons.  I even landed a sharp tooth catfish of 6 kilos and hooked and broke off a carp of nice size.  Tilapia eluded me but they still provided a lot of entertainment.  I was trying to accept the fact that I would only catch one litlle largemouth yellowfish but it was frustrating.

On the last day, we fished a number of pools for largies without a touch and then moved to my favorite smallie area.  I was having a blast catching smallies on my 4 weight and moved up slowly through the pools and runs of this particular area picking up nice fish the whole time.  Near the top was a run under some papyrus reeds that appeared to be a good smallie spot.  I began drifting my #12 gold ribbed hairs ear through it when a solid fish took and ran 25 meters upstream.

When he turned and swam just as quickly towards me I was sure the fish would be gone but the hook managed to stay in place and after 10 minutes I landed an 11-pound largie on 4X. James has been fishing for these fish for years and has never seen one take a nymph, be in water that fast, or be landed on 4X tippet.  We were over the moon with gratitude and after photos just sat there in disbelief.  James told me that fish was probably 15 years old as they grow slowly and live long lives.  This year I’ve caught a lot of memorable fish but that one is definitely the fish of the year for me.

African Waters is in the process of trying to determine if staying at Khamkirri Lodge is a viable business opportunity, especially for Americans, as this was the first time they’ve done it.  I truly believe it is and they are contemplating offering stays at the lodge as well as their float trip option.  This year the price was an unbelievably low $1,420 USD which included lodging, food, and guided fishing.  Even the bar bill (not included) was dirt-cheap-$24 for 1-2 Jameson whiskeys per night.  It’s hard to imagine a less expensive fishing trip even without considering the quality of the fishing.

For the angler looking for a nice place to stay, good fishing, and possibly a nice place to take a non-fishing partner I could not recommend this trip more highly.  It’s an unusual area not really frequented by Americans and I found the locals who hung out at the bar at night interesting and friendly.  You can get more information from  Keith Clover and Rob Scott are great guys and really go out of their way to make any bookings truly special.  If you have any questions about this fishery please feel free to contact me at [email protected].


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