Smallmouth Bass Safari — South African Angling Adventure

I’ll bet you didn’t know there were smallies in Africa. I didn’t either until two brothers from South Africa started writing to me saying they were also hard-core smallmouth fans. They invited me over to fish with them, and over the next 18 months kept sending me South African photos of big smallies and beautiful streams. Finally, I decided this was just too good to pass up.

So for 3 weeks, I fished and travelled across South Africa, where the seasons are reversed, they drive on the “wrong” side of the road and smallmouth bass have been established for nearly 70 years. And boy, what a fishing adventure it was. I didn’t just limit myself to the local bronzebacks. In fact, I caught 11 different species in all types of terrain, saw some amazing streams and fished with some outstanding anglers. Here are a few highlights of the trip:

Yellowfish on the Vaal

A Vaal River Yellowfish

A Vaal River Yellowfish

Vaal River YellowfishA Vaal River YellowfishWe barely get started before my pal Herman is whooping and stumbling as he struggles to stay connected to a powerful fish charging downstream thru the rapids. He slips, and only his head and upper torso are above the water. But as the hardcore fella that he is, he keeps the rod up and amazingly the fish stays on. Finally, a five-pound-plus smallmouth yellowfish is in the net. Now it’s my turn. Convinced there are indeed some hefty fish in these low-visibility riffles, I yank back when my strike indicator pauses. Whoa! Instantly I’m connected to a river rocket. The fish zooms across stream then down, as I struggle to keep it from getting into the rapids 70 feet downstream, putting all the pressure I dare on my 10-foot 6-wt rod. Miraculously, the tippet holds and the fish charges upstream right past me into just inches of water. I still haven’t seen it, but Herman is yelling “big yellow” “big yellow,” and I’m quickly realizing why the sleek puckermouthed smallmouth yellowfish is such a favorite among South African fly guys. When I do ultimately win the battle I’m more impressed, this “average-sized” 4-pounder felt like a 10-pounder to me.

Hunting Desert Bronze

South African Desert Smallmouth Bass

Tim with some High Desert bronze

South African Desert Smallmouth BassTim with some High Desert bronzeWe’re blasting a steady 70 miles per hour down a dirt road, and we haven’t seen another vehicle for 40 miles. It’s the Karo region, absolute desert as far as the eye can see, but the Afrikaans painted on a big truck tire on the side of the road says “Die Mond” with an arrow pointing into more dessert. For the next 3 miles we bounce over a rough dirt trail, opening and shutting 4 different gates. Finally, a cluster of small building among a few trees. This is the Die Mond camp and farm, popular with weekenders. It has six spartan cabins on a tiny lake and is our base for the next several days. Exotic bird calls and free-ranging piglets behind the cabin wake me next morning, but my fishing pals are already up. We quickly dunk “rusks” (sort of rock-hard biscuits) into coffee laden with milk and sugar, and pack our gear for a big day hunting dessert bronzebacks.

Two small rivers, the Groot and Doran, merge a few miles from our camp and they are our destination today. The streams snake through the sparse desert landscape with just 15-foot-wide strips of green foliage along their banks. Streams are nearly crystal-clear and surprisingly cool, despite the intense desert sun beating down on us. Recent rains up in the mountains have dramatically cooled the water and this doesn’t bode well for us. Instead of the smallies fighting for our baits, we have to fight for every strike. Thoroughly working each high-percentage head-of-pool area, we slowly pick off nice fish up to 16 inches.

Then it happens. I can see almost the entire bottom and this head-of-pool appears fishless. But I know how hunkered-down fish can vanish. I’m working my weighted fly against the flow when a strike nearly makes me lose my rod. It doesn’t jump, rather races downstream as I worry I can’t stop it. My fishing mates think it’s a large species of piscavorous yellowfish, but I’m not sure. Now the fish is heading up river along the far bank and nearly in the overhanging brush. I apply maximum pressure to my 8-lb-test leader and barely keep the fish out of the brush, and now it finally jumps, so we see it– a huge smallie. The hardest-fighting smallmouth bass of my entire year finally comes to hand, and I excitedly lift a fat 20-plus-incher above this exotic landscape.

Canyon Country Day

Now it’s the big time. Other days were just warm-ups. Upstream, the Groot River cuts its way through a deep, rocky canyon. Few anglers are hardy or foolish enough to venture far into this remote boulder-strewn gash in the dessert. We slowly pick our way along the top of the canyon then inch our way down a dry wash to the canyon floor and a drinking-water-clear stream. Very rocky, the stream is an endless series of long pools and short rapids. Smallies aren’t huge in this environment, where in the dry years the stream quits flowing. Nevertheless, plenty of them manage to survive in this harsh land thousands of miles from their ancestral home. Bizarrely, some other American transplants have also found their way to this remote waterway. We also catch several fat spotted bass and quite a few chunky bluegills.

The view from South African Canyon Country

A view from our day in Canyon Country

Before we have to climb out of the canyon ahead of the setting sun, Conrad, Herman and I land over 80 smallies and nearly two dozen bluegills and spotted bass. Most bronze boys were less than 15 inches, but a few were bigger and a couple we lost… well, you know how huge those that get away are. And yes, we did drink the water (delicious) saw the tracks of wild burros, lots of baboon “sign” (they like to poop on big boulders) and a strange woodchuck-like critter that jumps through rocks like a mountain goat.

Certainly, there are streams in South Africa with bigger smallmouth bass and ones with more of them, but canyon country fishing is truly amazing. It’s a near-wilderness, starkly beautiful, seldom fished and an experience I’ll remember forever.

Photo Gallery (click pictures to enlarge)

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