Eastern Cape Grand Slam ...

By Fred Steynberg

The amazing thing about the sport of fly fishing is that it is so multi-faceted. There are so many different species to target at all the many earthly destinations and the techniques are often so varied from one species or area to the next.  The fact that this sport has such diversity is the reason for our fascination, even the ones that have mastered the flex of the rod, should never in a lifetime become bored with all the challenges and complexities that the sport presents.

A Cuban ‘Grand Slam’

Last year I was fortunate to spend two weeks in Cuba targeting primarily tarpon, permit and bone fish.  All these species can be targeted in many other destinations around the world, but to set a challenge, the Cuban guides and outfitters have pushed the boundaries and created (or possibly inherited) a local ‘Grand Slam’.  To achieve their ‘Grand Slam’ the angler must, within a day’s fishing, hook and land a tarpon, permit and a bonefish on fly.  It became such a ‘hit’ with visiting fly fishermen that they  later added a snook (not our west coast snook but the one found in the shallows and mangroves off Western Atlantic) to achieve a ‘Super Slam’.  This may sound simple, yet even with Cuba’s rich supply of aquatic life and their dedicated guides, it is often easier said than done and luck really needs to favour the angler on the day.

Rob's smallmouth yellowfish that complete his grand-slam Rob's smallmouth yellowfish that complete his grand-slam (2)

In my opinion the most difficult part of the challenge is to hook and land the extremely selective permit and this should be achieved first.  Once this is done the hard-jawed tarpon should be next on the list followed by the more abundant and less technical bone fish to complete the challenge.  Daylight permitting, a snook will be a real bonus to the bundle.  It is such a fantastic experience and a personal fly fishing achievement to land a permit on fly, even if you have done so before,  if time eventually runs out and the permit is the only one bagged, the outing can be considered a success.

A South African ‘Grand Slam’

Back in South Africa we are fortunate to have the ingredients to present a similar challenge for fly fishermen to pursue with lighter gear (3 – 5 Weights), on foot and in pristine fresh water river systems.  Rivers that spring high up in the Eastern Cape Mountains (Southern Berg) have many thriving fish species that are worthy fly fishing adversaries.  Here one will find rainbow and brown trout that were introduced over one hundred years ago, small mouth yellow fish - Barbus aeneus and the Orange River mud fish – Labeo capensis (that migrate up from the Orange and lower Kraai river systems to spawn during summer).  Not to be mistaken for a lesser species but prevalent in fewer numbers is the handsome Largemouth yellow fish – Barbus kimberleyensis, that frequents the Kraai river system and can grow 30lbs+.

Species controversy

To create or invent an inland ‘Grand Slam’ on African soil can be a bit of a controversial affair and with many different options on what species should be considered and how to target them may come into contentious debates.  For instance the trout that have been in our river systems long enough to be considered part of such a challenge.  Trout that have thrived as ‘wild trout’ in many of our river systems and survived naturally for more than hundred years could almost be considered an endemic.  Surely they have intergraded into the system to such extent, in most areas, that the affect of their longstanding existence is irreversible?  Trout, the cradle of fly fishing species and a sport fish of notable proportions as well as an integrate part of some of our systems is definitely the first grand-slam species in this area.

Rob Malpage and a a good rainbow caught on that day presenting a fly to a smallmouth yellowfish on the Kraai

Small mouth yellowfish are the second grand-slam quarry and this should be undisputed.  Some would argue that the third should be the mudfish but is it possible for them to be cast in the same mould as trout and smallmouth yellows and can they be considered a true sport fish?  I for one have never considered landing a mudfish an achievement, maybe others might (although they are fun to fight).

Linecasters client Rob Malpage and a Largemouth Japie with his second species on the list, a smallmouth yellowfish

Targeting Largemouth yellow fish in the Kraai River can be daunting and more often than not fruitless; some would consider the task too great for this challenge.  Largies are however true endemic trophies and too special to leave out of a challenge such as this.  The greater the degree of difficulty in the challenge, the greater the reward if successfully achieved.  So the Largemouth yellow fish should undoubtedly be the third grand-slam species.

To sum up, a South African ‘Grand Slam’ should include a trout, a smallmouth yellow fish and largemouth yellow fish to successfully complete the slam. Throw in a muddy for a ‘Super Slam’ and you have a challenge that is worth the challenge.

 A quick species comparison to be made

Our rainbow trout can be compared to the Cuban bonefish, they areas plentiful and will accept a respectable offering.  They can be temperamental and sizeable specimens will often present more of a challenge to outwit.  The small mouth yellow fish, in these rivers, can be difficult to fool especially during their spawning run (before spawning).  They can be found feeding solitarily in riffles and runs or often in schools in deeper pools.  Anglers often need to be precise with the selection of their imitations and quick to react to subtle takes.  They can be compared to the tarpon that feed on the Cuban flats around the mangroves and in deeper channels. In selective areas they are plentiful but often it seems as if they have a little lock-jaw when they refuse a fly and the hook-up can present a challenge and be a little frustrating.  The largemouth yellow fish on the other hand is definitely the permit in this story.  They are often hard to locate and although they may feed aggressively, the correct imitation must be presented in the right area at the correct depth and the movements must simulate that of the natural food source.

Where and when

The middle and upper to middle Kraai river system is an area were such a grand-slam challenge can be set and achieved.  Conditions are however not always favourable as high, discoloured water often makes attempts impossible.  The Kraai River has so many different tributaries that flow into it at different parts and if one of these dumps strong, dirty water (caused by a regional thunderstorm or rain) the entire river below this point becomes unfishable with a fly.

Japie van Niekerk with the first of his grand-slam species, a 14'' rainbow

We have found that there are two favourable periods to fish this river section, the first is mid August to October and if the rain comes late, as it often does in these parts, November.  The second season is April and May but often with late rains in March and April the river can still be a little high.

Trout spawn from end June to around mid August each year and although they can still often be caught during this period success rates are poor and it’s ethically just not right to target them then. These two periods fall respectively within the trout’s pre and post spawning season, times in which these aquatic predators are often in aggressive feeding modes.  Some Smallmouth yellow fish move up into the Kraai river tributaries from October but many wait for the first rains before moving into larger pods.  They can still be found in good numbers in this area during August to October.  After they have spawned from November to January in the tributaries and when the rainy season comes to an end around mid to end March, most small mouth’s fall back into the Kraai river system and some even return to the Orange.

A young but handsome Largemouth yellowfish

Largemouth Yellows like the cooler water and often it is a prerequisite that fly rodders are able to spot them before targeting them.  This could save a lot of prospecting time and during these two periods the water often has optimum visibility.  Largemouth yellow fish spawn during mid summer after good rains and the periods before and after (as is winter) can be considered a good feeding period for them in this area.

To combine these three legendry species into a single day challenge is indeed a challenge and one that will not often be achieved.  In all my guiding days I have only witnessed this a handful of times.  This ‘Grand Slam’ is all about fun and anglers should attempt to achieve it only if they endeavour to enjoy the days experience regardless of the outcome.

For more information on this ‘Grand-slam’ and guidance contact us at fred@linecasters.co.za