SMALLMOUTH, largemouth, Natal Scalies, Lowveld, Clannies… South Africa’s yellowfish species are loved and lauded, but some cousins fly under the radar like the endangered Witvis. Leonard Flemming recounts what it took to catch his first one and how he’s been consistently targeting them since then.

“Once upon a time, long ago, before I had caught a proper specimen, I found it ironic that a local fish so well suited to fly fishing had been completely overshadowed by the thoughts of catching bass and trout. Surely a ‘Cape stream’ fish that grew well over 6 lb, lived in crystal clear water, ate invertebrates and is listed as one of our prime ‘yellowfishes’ should have been more popular? Yet when it came to witvis, most fly anglers in the Western Cape barely gave them a second thought.

The author releasing a witvis to breed and fight for survival another day.

There was (and still is) so little literature available about catching witvis on fly tackle that it seemed as though people never bothered to try and catch this once abundant large barbine in the Breede and Berg Rivers using their trout gear. In fact, the Berg River witvis population was once so healthy that schools of the fish were described with as “excessively large” and present in their “thousands,” which gives us an inkling of how prolific they once were. Now they are extinct in this river.

What witvis remain in the Breede River and some of its tributaries may, in comparison to old literature, represent a small fraction of what were once there and, perhaps, they too are nearing extinction? I remember a day outing on the Breede River near Worcester when I was looking for bass to catch on lure and I found a large, dead witvis on a sand weir. The farmers had bulldozed a temporary barrier across the river to dam up summer irrigation water for their surrounding crops. The fish’s instinctive drive to reproduce and, in a sense, to secure the future survival of the species, had propelled it up the sandy slope and into an inch of water where it suffocated to death.

I was fascinated by the dark fish, its ‘snout’ covered in tubercles suggesting spawning time and I wondered why on earth it was called witvis (whitefish, with emphasis on white)? The deep holes in its head revealed that a bird had, inevitably, found it before me and I had horrible visions of a struggling fish gasping for air and being eaten alive, peck by peck. I suddenly got very angry, cursing the farmers, cussing the lack of governance and then humanity for the selfish monsters we’ve become and the harm we’ve done to other living things.

Like a sentinel species exposing our weak points I did not realise how critical the state of witvis was until I came across that dead fish. It was only then that I was attracted to the idea of catching a witvis on fly. That experience was to open my eyes.”

Get the rest of the story in issue 19 below: