(Part two of a catfish mission with Ofishally Babich)
All photos by Terence Babich
The gas stove lit up in blurry vision, my numb, shaking hand nearly getting burnt by the match in the process of calming a fierce desire for coffee. I woke up early, cold to the bone and the lack of sleep due to the midnight chill made me realise that something more sinister moved in after the thunderstorm. It was that sense of low pressure, a cold front, which materialised in high stratus clouds in otherwise clear, but cold blue skies.
After a quick breakfast and enthusiastic, but sceptic talk in camp we went down to the river to face the truth. “That’s not good…” Terence remarked as he pointed to the high dappled white streaks in the sky; “…That’s a cold front, cats don’t like that”, he continued, confirming one of my biggest fears on a fishing trip as we waded in to our knees. The water surface was dead calm, perhaps even calmer before the storm the previous day. The cats were clearly not happy with the weather and I wasn’t amused either.
I started ‘plopping’ halfheartedly, but a big black serpent shape quickly appeared from the chocolate Steri Stumpie bottom layer and pushed a bow wave near my flies. More composed, I started plopping with determination. Then the ‘tap’ came on the end of my line, a large sand boil and the fish was gone. This happened a few more times to me and then Jack Lotter, standing a fair 200 m away from me yelped: “Why aren’t they eating the flies!”
I handed my 9 wt to Terry and skid to the bank over the slippery mud layer to fetch my 6 wt. I figured that if Jack and Terry could not hook a catfish, then my fishing time would be better spent on carp. As I set the hook into the first grubbing carp, Terry announced (now plopping vigorously out of frustration): “I also felt the taps, but they won’t commit”.
Catfish in the Cape are tricky most of the time, so this, although out of the ordinary to the Joburg guys, was nothing new to me. Knowing that carp are usually more willing to eat after a front, I carried on stalking them along the bank, hooking a few that sipped a small, weighted Zulu in spectacular finicky fashion. The heron approach was required to get close to them and once the fly was lowered into the zone, <10 cm in front of a feeding fish, the carp would respond by lifting its head, then slowly slide forward to investigate the ‘insect’ and if it ticked all the boxes the orange lips would extend to mouth the fly.
This kind of fishing, stalking scavenging fish in stale, muddy dam water, is one of my favourites; an enigma to many of my friends that find it quite disgraceful. Jack joined in the action and soon we had over ten carp between the two of us, the sight fishing fun distracting our minds from the ill-timed catfish sabbatical.
Then I saw something special; grass carp started tailing in ankle deep water. Just like bonefish would tilt in shallow water, nervously waving their tail tips at you, the grassies briefly brushed the surface with their distinctly black caudal fins only to rush a meter or two forward before stopping again.
Beyond these ultra-spooky, near impossible-to-hook-on-fly fish, were the surface cruisers, which seemed like a standard occurrence at this spot. I failed to convert on the tailers, so instead I bummed a floating fly from Terry (I left my dry fly box in camp as I believed it would be extremely unlikely to find rising fish in muddy water) to try catch a grass carp from the small schools patrolling the surface for as far as the eye could see.
Terry excitedly opened his fly box and started scratching through the ‘feathery’ odds and ends that he used to catch nearly every type of fish on. Expecting a hopper of some sort I was quite surprised when he handed me a grass green floating Fritz-like fly with a fettuccine parachute foam wing to float the cactus chenille bush underneath it.
“Here, I’ve never used this before, but try this, they may eat it?” he said holding the fly out rather forcefully. I gathered it would be pointless to argue for a yellow or green hopper, so I accepted the strange, but somewhat clever invention and tied it to 3 kg tippet.
The dry fly fishing that followed was in a class of its own and certainly also world class in my opinion. The technicalities involved long, accurate casts to place the fly softly and dead ahead of a cruiser and they’d drown it and eat it slowly, like a dog trying to swallow a large steak; so timing the strike was also important – much slower than ‘God save the Queen’.
I caught over ten juvenile grass carp in about two hours of non-stop action, which made the trip worth my while. To top the day off, the catfish got more active towards the evening and it was hard to leave the water before sunset, resulting in a rushed drive to the nearest town for a classic late night fisherman’s dinner.