(Part three of a catfish mission with Ofishally Babich)
All photos by Terence Babich
We all experience tough fishing trips and especially so in the last couple of years with the messed up weather patterns. It seems to be happening all over the world right now. What was predicted to be stable, warm weather turns into rain, hail, snow and/or wind from hell with no warning. I always try to make the best of such unprecedented conditions – the guides will generally tell you that it’s abnormal and that the fish should actually be in a frenzy that time of year. Naturally, it makes me fish harder because I know that the fish are still out there and they have to eat at some point, even during a storm; so finding the fish is key and you could still make the trip worthwhile.
Terence Babich was very diplomatic about the weather on this trip and although he described it as not ideal, he knew that the catfish were still about. His enthusiastic stare over the water for fish activity gave me new hope every time we reached a fresh spot. We travelled deep into a state reserve, for which Terence had a special access permit allowing us to go beyond the day visitor’s reach along the Vaal River.
‘Plonk’, ‘plonk’, ‘plonk’…No cat here…’Plonk’, ‘plonk’…No cat there…We used Terry’s special, double fly catfish calling protocol. It was a slow and painful process – my wrist started aching and got so sore from the unusual motion with a 9 wt that I had to rest it for an hour or so, forcing me to go and catch a few carp in the shallows before committing to another two to three hours of pain.
It was a slow third and final day of the trip and although we caught some lovely carp in the morning, the poor luck with catfish started to take its emotional toll. Having a trusty ‘backup’ species and one of my favourites too made me realise how terribly spoilt we were and that I’d be unreasonable to admit my disappointment with the ‘poor conditions’ we faced. One could easily and at any time still fall back on an ever-present splendour of sight fishing for tailing carp.
The carp action continued on the end of my line until Jack, notably irritated with the situation, went on a proper mission, wading in almost chest deep and to the point of swimming to reach the middle of a small river channel in one of Terry’s most productive bays. We watched how he persevered, plonking meticulously in the same spot, over and over again, his actions bordering insanity to the clueless bystander. But then his fly got eaten, way down, like ten seconds down in the deep water, and I was there next to him in seconds, plonking in chest deep water.
Jack quickly hooked another fish and then I started feeling the takes. He had finally found the fish, sulking at the bottom of the deep river channel, understandably so with the foul weather that passed over. This was the perfect reminder that one should always fish with ‘your brains’ and that there’s an explanation for most things (if not everything) we ‘discover’ as fisherman.
As the sunny day went on and the water warmed up towards the afternoon, the resting cats moved into the shallows and bigger fish started to show up amongst the many ‘gulps’ of actively hunting catfish taking air on the surface. It was a race against time for me as we still had to drive about 4 hours back to Johannesburg that evening and I could see Jack was getting ready to pack up after landing his daily handful of cats that he worked so hard for on every day of this tricky trip.
After finally also landing two smaller catfish around lunchtime, Terry and I watched how a school of medium cats brushed the surface with their whiskers, sifting through scum for a protein snack.
I cast in their direction and the fly got grabbed so hard by a fish that the 20 lb tippet nearly snapped as it turned 180° and darted at trevally speed away from us. After an impressive fight for a catfish, Terry lipped it and we took a few quick photos before returning the fish. Terry decided to wade ahead of me and check out the other end of a shallow bay where he had seen very big fish previously, while I stayed behind in an area where numerous big fish had spooked from our footsteps. Terry was still wading across the bay when the biggest bucket mouth I had seen the entire trip broke the surface for air about 15 feet away from me. Adrenalin kicked in and my casts were pathetically all over the show. Ironically, Terry had warned me that it typically happened when his clients saw big catfish swim past; I didn’t pay much attention to his warning, believing I’d stay as cool as a cucumber. I was wrong.
The catfish swung violently back and forth in a serpent-like dance on the surface, kicking up quite a swell as it searched hungrily for the ‘fry’ making the splashing noise. After about six plonks it disappeared and the water surface went calm. I was gutted, totally peeved with myself losing composure like that over a catfish sighting…Psha! I left the flies to sink to the bottom, with a drop of optimism and hope that the fish was still there, lying dead still on the bottom.
The take was subtle, like an underwater breath ‘touching’ the line. Lifting the rod slowly and unsure of myself, I felt dead weight at the end. The fish had eaten one of the flies and just sat there, like an anchor in the mud. For a moment I thought I had foul hooked the bugger, but then came the head-shakes and like a passing train it just cruised at an even pace, taking my backing out into the brown water.
Terence appeared next to me and started giving instructions. We walked the fish into the shallows, slowly gaining line and control over the fight, not knowing yet how big the fish was. I wasn’t going to take any chances as Jack was already waiting in the driving seat of his car; I had made my last cast. When we eventually landed the fish, I was slightly surprised that a cat of just over 20 lb could feel that heavy on a 9 wt. However, I was still satisfied with the end result, finding solace in the last fish of the trip.