Fly anglers prefer the road less travelled, one that leads to wild and undiscovered places where fish grow portly and others dare to tread. So it comes as no surprise that two intrepid fishing friends invite me on a quest for the elusive pot of gold.
Flyfishing expert Arno Laubscher, and his companion Andre Hoffmann, a respected Vaal River flyfishing guide, lead me down a labyrinth of dusty back roads, 40 kilometres west of Orkney in the Free State, towards
a seldom-fished section of the Vaal River to find big fish and solitude.
“This is private land and few people get to fish it. I take only special guests,” Andre tells me as we bounce along the rutted country road. I express my gratitude and tell him I am honoured to be included.
We pass miles of sparsely populated farmland until Andre gestures toward a gated lane. We drive slowly onto the farm and follow a tractor path with a series of cattle gates, each of them opened and carefully closed. We pass hayfields and pastures and eventually stop at the edge of riverine forest that appears impenetrable.
A buzz of excitement goads us over a barbwire fence and into the jungle. We footslog through lush vegetation and limbo under the taaibos trees, while insects form clouds around us and wag-’n-bietjie thorns tug at our clothing. Eventually, we slide down a river bank into a patch of bright-green sawgrass, wiggle our way towards some streamside English willows and step into the refreshing coolness of the Vaal River.
I stand knee-deep in this far-flung section of the river, catch my breath and soothe the burn of stinging nettles while my companions fly cast to yellowfish in quick water eddies. I was the novice who wore short pants.
Immediately, Arno ties into a big, powerful fish. His rod bends deeply and he struggles to hold it against the rushing current. The husky yellow charges downstream with Arno in pursuit while he plays the fish in an artful display of positioning, tension and light touch. Arno is an experienced angler who understands the limitation of light tippet (line) against the strain of a big fish.
Andre joins us mid-river to celebrate the day’s first fish and scoops the five-pounder into his net. Arno wets his hands and lifts the fish for all to see. Its golden sides sparkle in the morning sunlight, a perfect match to the vibrant smile on Arno’s face.
My trip to the Vaal begins on short notice with a phone call from Arno. He has the itch to catch yellowfish, suggests the timing is good and asks me to tag along. Arno says the area we will fish holds both smallmouth and largemouth yellowfish. The smallmouth grow to about 12 pounds while largemouth can exceed 20 pounds.
“Sure, count me in,” I tell my friend, eager to experience epic Vaal flyfishing. A couple of days later, we find ourselves on the road to Orkney, talking along the way.
Arno, the founder and president of a large flyfishing manufacturing, product-development and distribution company called ScientificFly, remains well-known in the industry and I find it interesting that his introduction to the sport was entirely self-initiated.
“My parents did not like fishing, but my cousin did. We would ride bikes to go fishing,” Arno says of his upbringing in Natal, near the town of Newcastle.
The young fishing cousins initially targeted bass on conventional tackle, but Arno wanted to increase the level of difficulty by catching them on a fly. He began tying flies from instructions found in library books and was soon catching fish on his hand-crafted ones. “I wanted to catch bigger fish on light tackle and flyfishing seemed the answer,” Arno tells me.
His passion for fly-tying and flyfishing followed him into adulthood and led to a job in Lydenburg where Arno managed 77 people tying flies to fill international orders. Eventually Arno left the Lydenburg business to open a fly shop in Johannesburg, and a few years after this he formed the ScientificFly company.
“I love the product development side of the industry,” the 46-year-old entrepreneur says. Arno recently added a travel-related branch to his business called Chasing Targets to communicate more directly with anglers about product-development issues.
It’s exciting to spend time with an industry leader like Arno and learn about new fly patterns, equipment and travel destinations, but now it’s time to catch yellowfish. Like all savvy fly anglers, we head upstream. Arno peels to the right and Andre hangs with me to reveal secrets of the river, a quick study of yellowfish and some flyfishing tips. Andre is an experienced river guide and his lessons are eagerly accepted.
Yellowfish, he explains, loiter in slack water seams and eddies formed by rock obstructions and small cascades. The fish wait for morsels of food, mostly insect larvae pushed downstream by the current and feed heavily on caddis fly nymphs.
Andre lifts a rock from the stream floor and shows me the crusty casings where squirming caddis nymphs hide. Several of the small, green insects slither across the stone and he suggests we replicate them with fishing flies and present them to the fish in a process called nymphing.
Andre points out a few slack water areas to target and directs me to cast a tandem set of tiny flies beneath a brightly coloured strike detector. The small caddis nymph flies tick over the stream bottom allowing the floating detector to signal a take. Andre watches until he is comfortable that I have mastered the task and sets off to another area.
I throw dozens of casts into subtle current breaks until suddenly my strike detector twitches and a fish tugs at the end of my line. The yellowfish races into the current and strains against the light six-pound line. Eventually, the tethered fish surrenders and comes to hand. Andre and Arno join me with celebratory handshakes. This, my first Vaal River yellowfish.
We separate once more and continue fishing upstream. Wading is extremely difficult in this section of the Vaal River. Rock formations of all sizes litter the river floor to create extreme wading challenges. The unrelenting strength of the current exacerbates the hazardous conditions and falling is not uncommon. A top pair of wading boots and a solid wading staff remain necessary to fish the Vaal River.
“I have fished all over the world and the Vaal River has proven to be the most treacherous,” Arno later tells me.
I pick up a few more fish and miss many more. I can see my friends, posted at various spots in the river, catch fish regularly. Arno lands two big specimens, among them a ten-pound smallmouth yellowfish and the other a nine-pound largemouth yellowfish. Andre picks up some solid six-pounders. We come together for high fives every time a big fish is caught.
Soon, the shadows grow long, and we return to the farmhouse on Andre’s property where Arno and I will spend the night. We start a fire on the back porch and talk under the starlit nightscape. Andre speaks of his love for flyfishing, the indigenous yellowfish and the Vaal River. Like Arno, fishing was not part of Andre’s childhood. He was introduced to flyfishing by a school mate during his college years.
It was nothing short of fortuitous that the family farm abutted the Vaal River. “It was like a door opened and I grabbed it with both hands and both feet,” says the seasoned river guide who has been teaching others for 13 years.
He farms beef cattle on a large portion of the family farm along the river and has wild game on much of the property. He and his wife Adri maintain a series of hiking trails, which begin at the main farmhouse, to accommodate school groups, hikers and anglers.
Andre describes his portion of the Vaal River as a special place due to its seclusion, distance from upriver pollution and his strict catch-and-release policies. The conservation-minded angler has access to more than
28 kilometres of private water and carefully rotates anglers to alleviate fishing pressure. He speaks affectionately of his fish.
“Yellowfish are special. Just when you think you know them, you realise there is much more to learn,” he says, the night-time fire reflecting off his face.
We discuss the day and tally the fish count. Between the three of us, we hooked 47 fish, some of them exceptionally large. “It’s one of the best days I’ve ever experienced on the river,” Arno says.
I rub my legs, still soothing the burn of stinging nettles, scratch a few bug bites at my neckline and see the wag-’n-bietjie scratches healing on my thighs. Fishing at the end of the rainbow does not come free of charge.