Fly Fishing for Yellowfish in Rhodes

Selective Yellows and Fly Patterns — March 2002

I have been fishing for Yellowfish or for Trout and then hooking Yellowfish for the past 10 - 15 years, but never have I looked at Yellowfish the way I have this last month of February 2002. With all the rain we had in November and December and relatively little rain in our usual rainy season, January and February, it seemed as though the equilibrium of all terrestrial cycles had been upset. Where we normally have a prolific sawfly fall from November to January, this year it occurred from January until March and probably will continue till late April. Flying ants also normally appear in the hotter November, December and January months when the pre-pressured tropical thunderstorms entice them to flight. This year they were late in appearing and have been in abnormal abundance.

Strange weather patterns

Aquatic hatches have been unseasonal, some hatches beginning way off their normal spring or autumn agenda. January, February this year the bigger rivers in and around Rhodes, Barkly East area had dropped to an almost crystal clear and fishable extravaganza, the only problem being there where no fishermen around to fish them. This gave me a little time to fish waters which had not been fishable for some time. For weeks I could choose just about any section of water to survey and reassess.

Coming back to the Yellowfish, a self-proclaimed Yellowfish expert last September asked me what I had against Yellowfish as I always focus on trout in my articles. I duly explained to him that I also spend a lot of time in the company of Yellowfish but tend to prefer trout because of their hierarchy as a sport fish in rivers. Trout, have for me, always been a fish to catch not only because of their selective feeding habits, aerial fighting display or looks, but also because of their choice of high-country, clean, pure rivers.

Outstanding Conditions in Rhodes

This year, after a couple of outstanding, world class fishing days, spent on my own on the Kraai river, Sterkspruit and lower Bokspruit, gave me a reason to recognize that there should be a place in my fly fishing diary for Yellowfish. I was accompanied by my wife on the first of these notable days, who took photos for our website. It was early on a Sunday afternoon and there was a gusty North Easter blowing upstream through the Kraai River 'canyon.' As we arrived I could see a couple of fish rising under the trees to what seemed to be sawfly larva or beetles falling into the water as the wind blew through the willow trees. After setting up the 5w for line control and distance in the wind, I crept up to the first willow tree, standing with its roots on the bank of a very slow pool. I sat down on my haunches to asses the situation when a gust of wind dislodged, literally, a handful of sawfly from the branches into the water below. Within a split second there where 4 or 5 smallmouth yellowfish on them, feeding with either ferocious, splashing rises off the surface or grabbing with swift darting swirls on the larva that broke the water film.

Yellows feeding on Sawfly larva

I knew that yellowfish would eat the sawfly larva, but I was dumbfounded at their ferocity and selective intent. I immediately changed my rig to 5x tippet and a total leader length of 12ft. with a #14 sawfly larva imitation (the one I tied in April 2000 edition of 'The Complete Fly Fisherman'.) I used no indicator so as not to spook the rising fish, in the shallow 1ft.-2ft., clear and slow water. As the first presentation landed beneath the willow branches and broke surface a yellow pounced onto it and I struck almost simultaneously without knowing whether it had actually eaten the fly or just looked at it. The fish was on and with some difficulty I managed to pull him away from the others. It wasn't a big fish but all yellows are strong and the manner in which he took the fly made me feel deeply satisfied, realizing that I am probably one of the first to intentionally catch a yellow on a sub-surface sawfly larva.

I succeeded in catching two more within 5 minutes and as many casts, but then found that the yellows were starting to turn away just before eating the fly, all the while still feeding on the surface around where I presented the fly.

I changed the sub-surface larva imitation to one tied with just chenille in the San Juan worm style. After coating it with floatant and greasing the leader 10 inches above the fly, I gave it another try. The fly had hardly hit the water in two consecutive casts and I hooked two fish on surface-splashing rises. Amazingly only then, after landing four fish did the yellows realize that something mattered and spooked. All the fish were around the 2 lb. mark and very feisty.

I moved upstream to a strong, deepish, riffle-run which flowed under a crack willow, almost creating a tail- water effect, running out of a deep, slow pool. I was unsure on whether to change to a nymph or to stick to the 'dry fly sawfly larva'. After deciding on the nymph rig, I ran a couple of drag free drifts through the riffles, expecting a response on the indicator. The indicator didn't move but as I was working the riffle the wind again dislodged some sawfly, attracting a good yellow from under the shady branches to the surface. I sat down on my haunches and reerected the floating sawfly rig. The first presentation produced an enormous reaction from a small fish, not the one I was targeting, but I missed him and redirected my cast to where I knew the bigger fish was holding. The fly landed a foot across from him and he gently moved to the side and without creating a bubble, stuck his nose out of the water and sucked in the fly. The fish tested the true strength of the 5X tippet, using the current to its full advantage, a minute or two later I estimated his weight at about 3.5 - 4 lbs.

Half an hour had not even elapsed since we arrived and I had already had spectacular dry fly fishing. The rest of the afternoon I stuck to the 'dry fly sawfly larva' imitation and caught 8 more yellows and five or six trout, eventually returning home to memorize the events.

Back on the Sterkspruit

A couple of days later I was back, but this time on a Sterkspruit beat. The Sterkspruit is known for its yellows and big but elusive rainbows. I always cherished the times without seeing a soul on this secretive river. I had arrived mid-morning and not seeing fish rise started working the long, slowish glides undercuts with a bead head Zak fished in tandem with a caddis larva. The caddis did not produce but the zak was successful in attracting a couple of yellows and a whole string of trout. I was just beginning to think that I might not relive the surface action of the previous visit when I spotted a couple of boils in a long glide, approximately 40 yards upstream. As I approached I could see that they were yellows, but for the life of me had no idea what they were targeting (seemingly sub-surface). The boils were sporadic at first but later the glide had 10 - 15 fish moving at once. My first instinct was to arm myself with an emerger of sort. A caddis pupae and the highly effective brown C.D.C. mayfly emerger was consistently ignored, and I spent a long time peering into each fly box eventually deciding on a small # 16 emerging mayfly with a protruding shuck and tied onto a thin wire sedge hook in a klinkhammer special style.

As the fly drifted over a boil, the fish checked, moved back and sucked it off the surface. I was so surprised that I over reacted, parting the 5x tippet where it joined at the double surgeons loop. I rigged up again and hooked and landed two more fish between 2 and 3 pounds. I remained in the same spot in a haunching position, targeting one fish after another. After about 20 minutes the wind picked up and the fish seemed to break surface every now and then. The effectiveness of the klinkhammer (of sort) faded and the yellows eventually hardly acknowledged a direct drift-over. I covered my fly-patch in an attempt to establish what the fish were feeding on - Klinkhammers, Rab, daddy-long-legs, griffis- gnats, humpy's, mayflies and beetles were some of the no-no flies. A smallish fish acknowledged a black gnat but spooked at its own clumsy efforts to suck it off the surface. I was about to change back to a search pattern when the fish stopped rising altogether and I moved to the inlet or head of the glide, where the river hugged the reed bank and slight under cut below weeping willow branches.

Large wild trout in the Sterkspruit

I knew this to be a good spot for trout and worked a bead head zak as a search pattern as close to the bank and undercut as possible. The second and tighter cast produced a small 10” rainbow and the next cast produced a yellow of about 2 lbs. I was about to return the zak for more prospecting when a movement across to my left caught my eye. I saw a large trout floating downstream, resuming a lie across and down from me. I knew that the commotion further up, hooking and fighting the rainbow and yellowfish, must have alerted him, but I was sure that the trout was not aware of my presence. While watching the trout, too afraid to move, it started to sway in the current a foot to his left and right, just braking the surface with its nose and sipping sawfly larva and beetles off the surface. I changed to the floating sawfly larva without too much movement and considered the presentation that was to follow.

In this situation one often has only one cast and before attempting it one should take into consideration the drag that will come into effect after the fly has been presented. I checked the currents but had no problems with the relatively laminated flow. The fly dropped with a slight plop two feet from the fish and as it floated down stream I saw the fish zoom in and prepare to eat it. The water was only a foot and a half deep and the fight a wild, thrashing about, not unlike any big N.Z.brown trout. The trout measured 22 inches, a good wild fish anywhere in the world, and I released it as quickly as possible. This trout had been a selective feeder at the time, but because it was obvious what the food source was, I had no difficulty in hooking the fish, first time round.

Prospecting with Zak's and Heavy Hitter's

After exploring some deep pools with an assortment of caddis and mayfly nymph patterns, I came to the conclusion that to blind fish for both trout and yellowfish a bead head zak or a heavy hitter as search patterns is probably the answer in our area, when prospecting. The caddis patterns produced a fish or two, but were not nearly as successful as the two flies mentioned. This showed how unpredictable the yellows could be. By sticking to the supposedly 'stable diet' imitation like the caddis, any fly fisher might have considered calling the day a bad fishing day.

I had decided to make my way back to the vehicle, it had just gone 3 o'clock in the heat of the afternoon and I had had my fun. Just before reaching the vehicle across river near the head of the first glide I had fished on arrival that day, I saw the water alive with boils and rises. I crept all the way around to the tail end of the glide and resumed my haunched fishing stance.

I was again unsure as to what I should present to the fish with nothing on the surface giving me any indication or clue. Only after trying out about 10 patterns and with no spectacular results, a flying-ant flew straight into my polarized sunglasses. I could not believe that this was what they where feeding on because they could not be seen struggling on the water. I selected a brownish/black foam flying- ant pattern from my fly box and after lengthening my 5x tippet I targeted every rise and boil made by fish. Every presentation produced a fish or a reaction. After catching 6 yellows between 1.5 and 3 pounds, the fish spooked and I called it a markedly notable day.

I once again learnt from these experiences a couple of points:

  1. When fly fishing, observing the manner in which the fish feed and what they feed on, especially yellowfish in clear water, is extremely important.
  2. Yellowfish are highly adaptable when it comes to their feeding habits and in the same way as with trout, there is no hard and fast rule as to what they will feed on and when.
  3. That approaching a pool, riffle, run or glide correctly will give the fly fisherman an advantage over the quarry.
  4. Some flies are better than others, but the ultimate fly is the fly that is used for every specific scenario. (There is no one ultimate fly.)
  5. A serious fly fisherman needs to carry a wide range of flies to cover his needs in 'match the hatch' situations.
  6. Hooking the fish or fooling the fish into eating the imitation is of greater importance to me than fighting and landing it, especially river fish.