Theuns Brecher stands tall on the front boat deck, rod in hand and poised for action as he drifts silently towards a dead tree poking above the waterline. The veteran artlure angler swings an underhand cast against the bone-coloured trunk and allows his tiny plastic lure to fall slowly to the bottom.
He furrows his brow and squints, fully absorbed, when he feels a familiar yet almost imperceptible tug at the end of his line and brings aboard the day’s first fish. It’s a southern mouthbrooder, commonly called dwarf kurper, little more than two centimetres, but an oft-elusive species for those who cherish the sport of artificial lure angling.
“Loskop Dam has more than 20 species of fish and four types of kurper (tilapia). We’ll try to catch all the kurper species today and as many others as we can,” says Theuns, as he displays the brightly coloured fish wriggling in the palm of his hand.
A race against the clock
My tall and imposing friend suddenly doffs the celebratory mood and becomes intense, eyes darting to and fro. He looks beyond me, scanning the horizon, and remarks impatiently that artlure is a race against the clock, to land as many species as possible before time runs out.
“See the ripples and carp tail sticking out of the water in that patch of grass?” Theuns asks, pointing toward the shoreline. My restless partner throttles the electric motor, eyes locked onto the commotion, but stops before we reach our target. He points into the clear water at the shadowy outline of a bottom-hugging barbel.
I pick up my light-action fishing rod rigged with a small, size-14 hook and a teeny piece of wiggly plastic called a curly tail.
I drop the yellow lure in front of the resting catfish to see it swipe and miss. Theuns follows up and the whiskered beast latches on, hooked and angry. He fights the muscly fish on light line for quite some time in a game of carefully calculated give and take before it slips into the net.
“It happens like this quite often in artlure. You target one species and encounter another,” says Theuns, as he releases the heavy barbel and resumes the quickened pace.
Exuberant high fives
My artlure adventure begins two years earlier at a spring bass-fishing competition. Theuns and I share a campfire and talk late into the night about various fishing styles and his love for multi-species angling. He tells me that artlure provides a solid foundation for freshwater anglers, teaching them secrets of the underwater world, about every species, their respective habitats, life cycles, water temperature preferences and predator-prey relationships.
“Artlure is where most of South Africa’s top, tournament, bass-anglers start,” he tells me on that chilly night. It’s a fact not lost on me, having covered as a journalist many bass-related tourneys. The opportunity to learn first-hand from Theuns appeals to me, and now we find ourselves fishing together.
We work down a grassy shoreline where we see the rust-coloured shadows of carp, and cast to them in earnest. None will bite. Theuns tells me of many practice hours spent learning how to catch the lumbering bottom feeders. Carp can be difficult to hook on an artificial lure, but an important species in the world of competitive artlure angling. “They are one of my favourites,” he says. “I enjoy sight fishing them, it’s like hunting.”
We float quietly into a wide cove where fresh rainwater spills into the dam and forms a trickling waterfall. I see a carp feeding in the outflow, sucking forage pushed by the current, and flick a cast upstream. The lure drifts by and the elusive carp pounces on it. The struggling fish rushes toward the boat and puts a deep bend to my rod but surrenders quickly. My friend nets and releases the carp, gives me an exuberant high five and ponders the next move in our multi-species chess game.
Theuns suggests we start the main motor and head to another location for silver barbel, commonly called makriel. But before we leave, he wants to throw one cast into the limbs of a fallen, submerged tree. “There has to be a redbreast (kurper) hiding there,” says the veteran artlure angler as he pitches his lure and catches one on cue. Theuns rolls the small fish in his hands to show me the beautiful, ornate, facial markings of iridescent blue and talks about its place in the ecosystem.
The excitement of tiddlers
My visually stimulated mind draws underwater pictures of the smaller species and the predators that pursue them – finger-sized redbreast gobbled by heavy bass, peewee dwarf kurper eaten by larger blue kurper and big carp chased by bigger barbel. It’s a dangerous neighbourhood and the reason we find many species hiding in grass, rocks or tree limbs.
Our boat ride to the top end of the lake provides a wind-washed respite to the hot and steamy summer day. Reluctantly, we cut the motor and begin casting small gold-bladed spinners for Makriel where the water is stained and muddy, but have no luck. The inaction turns to chatter.
Theuns tells me he grew up in a fishing family and attributes his keen lifelong angling passion to youthful excursions with his father. Sometime during his twenties, Theuns began chasing bass but his job at Highveld Steel kept him too busy to join the elite competitive ranks.
Then, in about 1990, Theuns joined the 54-year-old Witbank Artificial Lure Angling Club. Artlure became his passion and, like his father before him, he shared many fishing experiences with his three children Berrie, Alicia and Charl, all of whom earned Protea Colours in artlure.
Competitive artlure angling is not graded by the size of fish, but by the number of species caught in a single day. Each species is awarded ten points, and individual species are granted a unique points formula for additional weight, up to a maximum of 9.99 points. The scoring system is designed so that two species will always trump a single fish, no matter the size.
“Artlure is hard. You aren’t after a single species and it keeps you busy all day long. It’s what makes is so interesting,” says Theuns.
Suddenly, I feel the pulsation on my bantam spinner stop, and realise a fish is on the line. It’s a tiddler. Theuns looks over my shoulder, eager to see the prize and I hand to him a thin, silver fish of about four centimetres. “Great catch, a dwarf tiger fish,” he says enthusiastically, and provides a short lesson about the small shoaling fish commonly called silver robber, a distant cousin to the larger, well-known Zambezi tiger fish.
I cannot help but think, as we add to the tally of specimens, that this just might be the fishing game for me, a sport where rewards are granted for little fish. I have always been adept at catching undersized ones, or so my fishing friends tell me.
Theuns grows impatient with our sluggish catch rate and suggests we find his son Berrie and my wife Catherine, both on a similar hunt for species. We meet them in a distant cove where a troupe of baboons watch from the shoreline. They have added to the species list two popular sportfish, largemouth bass and blue kurper and huddle with us to map out the next move.
Ten species in one day
We cruise down the lake in single file to a rocky inlet in search of two species of the Labeo family; the diminutive red-eyed labeo, and its larger cousin the red-nosed labeo, both known colloquially as mudfish. They are bottom-hugging species that relate to rocky structure.
Steep rock walls lift high above the cove and large boulders lie scattered on the lake bottom. Theuns and Berrie pick up light fishing rods spooled with two-pound test line sporting size 26 hooks, so small they would fit easily atop a pencil eraser. We drift quietly along the shoreline and see in the clear water schools of tiny red-eyed mudfish darting over and between the rocks.
The Brechers thread wee, white curly tails on their hooks and dip among the pods of dark-coloured fish. Soon, Berrie lifts one from the water, a mudfish of about six centimetres. The happy angler displays the rotund little fish with deep-red eyes before returning it to the water.
It’s mid-afternoon, the sun is high overhead and the heat unbearable. We pilot our boats to the launch ramp where we meet the entire South African National Protea Artlure Team taking a break from the summer swelter. They are together for one final practice before competing in a world championship artlure event, and they laud our successful day amassing ten species.
We trailer the boats and gather under the shade of tall lakeside trees. Theuns tells me he had a great day’s fishing and would like to do it again, to perhaps catch more species. I can’t wait to return and learn more from my friend. Next time, we will catch more of the little ones that got away.