Fly Fishing South Africa with Tim Leppan

South Africa is surely a hotbed of fly fishing action, on both sides they have insane saltwater fishing action and their interior is home to some truly exotic fish species and some familiar ones to American anglers. Tim Leppan a.k.a @LifeOnFly is a South African angler who captures some incredible imagery and has us fascinated with the species he lands on the fly. We sat down with Tim to chat about what fly fishing opportunities exist in SA and what it’s like to experience them!

Flylords: So tell us a little bit about Yellowfish. What are they? What do they eat? What’s your favorite strategy to target them?

Tim: There are six main species and three subspecies of Yellowfish which are arguably our most sought after indigenous freshwater species; much like your guys Rainbow and Cutthroat Trout. There’s a variety of ways to target them from nymphing to swinging streamers. Personally, though, I prefer swinging streamers at the larger species of Yellows such as the Largemouth Yellowfish (known to reach up to 40lbs…) and the Clanwilliam Yellowfish (various records suggesting fish up to 35lbs) in reality a Largemouth Yellowfish of 20lb+ is the magical mark and anything from 10lb+ with the Clanwilliam Yellowfish can be considered a true trophy, however, there certainly are bigger models out there… These fish can be super aggressive and are both highly predatory, despite their “Carp-esque” appearance. They feed mainly on smaller baitfish as well as crabs, frogs, and any other big, “carnivorous meals” they can get their mouths around. Pound-for-pound, these Yellowfish pull significantly harder than that of a Trout, no jokes, these fish have serious gas… I prefer to target these fish using large baitfish/ streamer patterns, 7wt outfits, 10-20lb leader setups, both floating and intermediate lines depending on the system we are fishing. You’ll know all about it when these Yellowfish make an appearance, man they can punish a fly! On that note, give them half a chance and they’ll bury you in the nearest undercut or log pile! You just can’t give them a chance, especially the Clanwilliam Yellowfish.

African Smallmouth BAss

Flylords: I see some Smallmouth Bass on your page, I didn’t know they were in South Africa, what’s the story there?

Tim: Smallies! Such cool fish… unfortunately, they are an alien species down here in South Africa and can cause serious havoc amongst our indigenous species, especially that of our Yellowfish and other smaller Barbs which are a vital part of our ecosystems. So there they can pose a large threat! However, on the other hand they are such cool fish to target on fly, they’re like the pit bulls of the freshwater fish world. I’ve always said to mates, it’s almost as if they enjoy being hooked, it’s like a game for them! Yeah, love them. We get some pretty big ones here too, proper “footballs” as you guys like to call them! They’re only found in very specific areas in our country and are actually quite difficult to locate at times but when you find them, damn it’s always a good time!

Flylords: What are grunter? How do you target them? Is there a fish from the New World that might compare?

Tim: Spotted Grunter. Quite possibly the weirdest fish on planet Earth. Down here in South Africa, you’ll often hear keen fly fishermen refer to them as “the poor man’s permit” which is not far from the truth. This fish can be unbelievably picky or fussy eaters. The worst part, or best part? Is that they’re super visual… you see them tailing like Permit all over the mudflats on certain tides. They feed on a variety of different crustaceans with sand prawns and mud prawns making up most of their diet (from what I’ve seen). These fish will tail on the flats, placing their snouts over the prawn holes and actually blowing water into these holes. By doing this, they are able to blow a number of prawns out of their holes where the Grunter are then able to just cherry-pick, really. Throw a live prawn at them, you’ll hammer them. Throw anything artificial? Good luck. However, there’s always the flip side.

On certain tides, certain moon phases, haven’t quite cracked it yet, they turn on. Like someone turning on a light switch. When it goes off, you can pick up a couple in fairly quick succession. Thankfully, for me, I’ve had some seriously talented fly fishermen target these fish before I even knew what they were all about. In saying that, countless hours have been put in towards targeting these fish and figuring out exactly how they feed and how they behave. These guys picked up how readily Grunter would eat a prawn off the top, in certain situations obviously. This was revolutionary leaving the up and coming anglers with a recipe for success, which I’m super grateful for. It opened up a truly special and unique fishery and made it accessible to all likeminded fly fishermen. To this day, it is still how I target these fish, looking for tails or areas where fish are actively working; if the water is too deep for the tails to be evident, they still give away their position via mud clouds or “pancakes” as we like to refer to it as when they blow on the prawn holes. Reaching these fish is of utmost importance, standing still in an area you want to fish until the fish settle is vital too. Wait for the fish to get comfortable again, you’ll be amazed as to how close they come.

Often you’ll see a bunch of them working 5-10m away from you, it’s unreal. We fish 7wts outfits once more, long leaders, personally I like to use 10lb fluoro and floating lines. We fish topwater mud prawn imitations fished super slow with an underarm retrieve, almost like “milking a cat” strange thought, but it gets the point across, I guess! Due to the shape of the mouth on these fish, a little bit like a handheld vacuum cleaner, you get far more inquiries where the Grunter truly try to eat the fly but simply miss it, at least that’s my hopeful opinion. Otherwise man, if that’s rejection… haha. The hook-up ratio when these fish do this is frighteningly low which makes these fish possibly one of the most frustrating species I’ve ever targeted with a fly rod! But as most know when targeting tricky fish, once you get that hook-up it’s a completely surreal feeling, one you don’t forget for a long, long time. They truly are special fish!

Flylords: On a more serious note, how is COVID-19 affecting you all in South Africa? Are you able to get out and fish? What are you doing to pass the time?

Tim: COVID-19 has taken its toll much the same as the rest of the world, it’s tough, it’s bizarre, the lack of freedom is bitter but understandable. The urge to fish is reaching unfathomable levels, due to not being able to even dream about fishing during our lockdown. Fishing is just simply not an option for us recreational anglers. Fly tying was the only way to aid this despair, until the materials ran out… We’re about to kick off with online lectures at University so that should hopefully be a distraction from the reality of missing fishing this much, haha. Let’s see, here’s to hoping things change in a positive way regarding COVID-19, I’m sure many of us feel the same, at least.

Flylords: Where is the first place you’re going to cast a line when the lock-downs are lifted?

Tim: In an ideal world if I could land myself on the banks of the Lower Orange River I would, I’d give up an irrational amount of resources to have that opportunity right now or in the near future, but yeah that’s merely a dream at the moment! I’ll most likely be on one of our rivers targeting pre-spawn smallies, which is certainly not a bad alternative, one I certainly look forward to! Pre-spawn is a crazy time, big females chasing down big streamers in the rapids. Yeeeewwwww! 

These species have been on my radar more so than most species in South Africa, a large part of that is due to where I’m currently based, near Cape Town in the most southern province of our country. The other reason for this being the fact that these species reside in some of the most breathtaking locations our country has to offer. Take the Smallies for example, we find them in both our lakes and various river systems. When commitments are sky high and free time non-existent, I enjoy sneaking out to some of our bigger lakes just outside the city, granted the season is right for it, and once more target the big females during pre-spawn. However, I’d have to admit, targeting these pre-spawn fish in our various river systems, in an area called the Cederberg, is just the cherry on top.

Picture this, crystal clear flowing rivers, white sand beaches, massive rocky cliffs and outcrops coupled with the sound of Fish Eagles, the distinct bark of Baboons and the ever-present spoor from that of Leopard. We have regular run-ins with herds of Gemsbok as well as Springbok and Ostriches, even Kudu bulls during certain parts of the year as they seek refuge from the searing heat. It’s incredible, as close to untouched as I could possibly imagine. The most similar area to that of what I’ve just described has got to be the Devil’s River in Texas, that baron and harsh landscape; yet somehow having the ability to house one of the most unbelievable ecosystems. You’ll often see smallies laying staggered on top of white sand backs, just off the current seam, as they wait for any small baitfish to come darting out from the main channel. Swinging streamers to these fish is just nuts. In environments as untouched as this, those fish don’t hesitate, zero commitment issues, it’s a dream come true. Ooohh and they hate a mouse, they have to kill it… seriously though, they delete a mouse pattern! These Smallies coexist with the Clanwilliam Yellowfish, arguably the rarest true indigenous Yellowfish within South Africa. These two species, in one river, in an area such as that… you can imagine what a weekend away from university is like…

This leads me to the Yellows. If I could recommend a trip to any of the readers out there, it would be to the Lower Orange River in the Kalahari, South Africa. The fishing will truly blow your mind… it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before…genuinely, especially for the guys overseas. You honestly cannot believe how vast and totally unique the landscape is that you fish on that river. It’s quite literally an oasis, flowing from Kimberley, where the Orange joins up with the Vaal River, its main tributary, and then continuing its path through the arid landscape of the southern Kalahari region and Namaqualand, eventually draining into the Atlantic Ocean, on the West Coast of South Africa. The Lower Orange shares many similarities with the various rivers, mentioned earlier, located in the Cederberg region where we target the Smallies and Clanwilliam Yellowfish. They both run through desert terrains and require serious logistical planning and efficiency in order to access, however, the reward is unparalleled. Everything I spoke about regarding the rivers in the Cederberg, the baboons, the birds of prey, the array of other wildlife such as Gemsbok and Springbok, times it by ten. It’s the Cederberg’s bigger brother, with more fish and far more water… The biodiversity on the Lower Orange River doesn’t seem real… it’s that good. Everything’s happening all at once on that river, it’s a truly thriving ecosystem in every possible way. It’s the closest, in my opinion, that you can get to experiencing what things used to be like way back when before globalization and environmental degradation. I crave my return to that river far more than any other destination I’ve ever fished, hands down. 

I remember being blown away at how predatory and aggressive the Yellowfish actually were, traditionally Smallmouth Yellowfish (by-catch believe it or not) are known to mainly feed on aquatic insects such as mayfly nymphs and caddis larvae, for example. Once they’ve reached maturity they tend to concentrate in deeper slower pools and out of the rapids where they feed on smaller baitfish as well as aquatic insects, essentially becoming more predatory and dependent on larger meals. On the Orange, the Smallmouth Yellowfish, of all sizes and shapes, welcomed a swung baitfish pattern as if it were their last… I’ll never forget my first fish on that river. I approached a large rapid which had a large boulder, easily accessible on foot, in the middle of the current. The boulder created a split in the rapid, concentrating the current into two main channels. One to the right, where I had just come from and the second to my left. The channel to the left developed a deep pocket running tight up against a reed bank with large boulders on the edges. Do you know when you spot that pocket? Well… I immediately slapped a sex dungeon tight up-against the boulders, threw in a large mend with a raised rod tip, lowering the rod tip as my fly reached the deep pocket to ensure I could get it as deep as possible. The second that fly started to swing, the initial eat ripped a foot of line out my hands before I even realized what was going on. I thought to myself, the first 15 minutes of the trip and I’ve been blessed with an ever-elusive trophy Largemouth Yellowfish, as the fish tore off up-river uncontrollably. Turns out, it was a Smallie, around 8lbs at best, speechless. I remember thinking to myself “if a Smallie of that size throws down abuse like that, how on this planet am I going to handle a Largie of 15lb plus…” turns out it happened, bloody mind-bending to say the least, I reckon it changed my personality somewhat… But yeah… let’s save that story for another time!

Long story short, we experienced a week of aggressive Yellowfish and screaming reels, lost in a desert far from home and cellphone reception, what more could one ask for? 

(Sidenote – For those that are genuinely curious, check out @kalaharioutventures or @mavunganaflyfishing for more on that… let me know how it goes!) 

Check Tim out on Instagram for all of the South African fly fishing content you can take!

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