A story of two smallmouths and water under the bridge by LeRoy Botha in issue 19 of The Mission

“14 November 2012. It’s incredibly hot and the wind is shunting. I’ve come prepared for a day or three’s fishing: food, tent, beer, gear. The Upper Gouritz River at this point is a wide, powerful river, always flowing crystal-clear during the smallmouth bass spawn. I’ve fished many seasons here – I know the drill. The resident smallmouth yellows and smallmouth bass are suckers for a Peacock Woolly Bugger, and while the bass model is my preferred target, I’m chasing yellows for a start. Proper bass water only appears a few hundred metres’ walk upstream. I’d come to expect most of the bass to be under 18 inches long, so my Bugger and 3-weight combo really doesn’t feel like too little gun for this fight. Besides, the yellows are a jam on it and the wind is blowing upstream.

The Gouritz where you can catch the other smallie (smallmouth yellowfish) before targeting a smallmouth bass. Photo LeRoy Botha

“Friends and family know all about my obsession with getting a 20 inch smallmouth bass, but, to be honest, many trips in I am not convinced it will ever happen.”

I open the tab with a beautiful yellowfish from the first run I fish, then proceed upstream to reach the biggest pool on the stretch. I’d taken some good fish from its tail-out, but never found it quite as productive as I thought it should be. Friends and family know all about my obsession with getting a 20 inch smallmouth bass, but, to be honest, many trips in I am not convinced it will ever happen. Imagine, therefore, my elation when exactly such a fish humours me, eating the small fly so gently as to only slightly interrupt my drift. I tighten up, impressed by the fact that for once I don’t fright-strike. Her solidness erupts from the water, and dive-bombs back with all the grace you’d expect from the 4,5lb brick she is. I finish shitting myself, ease into the fight, and net her after a few sweet, sweet jumps and about as much pull as my poor 3-weight ever had to endure before.

20-inches of Gouritz river lovin’ from a time before the drought. Photo LeRoy Botha

She misses the 20inch mark only by the tips of her tail having been worn off during spawning. I’d done it – accidentally. I light a smoke and sit down a while, having photographed and released my prize. I’m an hour into my fishing trip and so satisfied that I decide to up and leave for home. I often do that when I catch exactly what I want. I feel as though the moment shouldn’t be watered down by continuing, knowing you aren’t likely to top what just went down. It’s stupid and I always regret it when I get home and, yet, I still do it.

Little did I know at the time that a drought was a mere metaphorical minute away – the longest and worst ever seen in the Western Cape and one that very quickly turned the Upper Gouritz into little more than a memory. Along with the memories went my final opportunity to catch a smallmouth bass for many years.

Leonard Flemming and Andre van Wyk with a Berg river double up. Photo Leonard Flemming

13 November 2019. It is stupid hot, and the wind is ungodly. I’m in the Boland on non-fishing related business, but I have a 3-weight and a 7-weight packed just in case. If time allows, Gordon van der Spuy and I will meet for a spot of trout fishing on the Eerste River. Unfortunately, I have only a few hours in the morning, and Gordon (being one of those actor types,) ends up having to attend a last-minute casting. I grew up in Stellenbosch, and the Eerste is where my love affair with all things fly truly started. With my fishing partner out for the count and dry fly fishing cancelled by the wind, I reconsider my options. I still need to do something historic – revisit the roots, man.

Light bulb: The Berg River. As kids we targeted smallies here, and in later years guys like Sean Mills, Leonard Flemming, Platon Trakoshis and of course André Van Wyk put it on the map as arguably the coolest carp-on-fly venue south of the equator. I’m super keen on one of those sludge suckers, but niggling quietly at the back of my mind is the slight possibility of a smallmouth. We always saw them, back in the day, but our best efforts with gigantic, awfully tied pink Dahlberg Divers yielded only modest results.

I shoot André a message – more than twenty years down the line, I need some recent intel. I ask about the carp and the smallies. Despite the horrifying toll the on-going drought had also taken on the Berg, recent rains and a generous dose of inside info gets my hopes back up. By the sound of it, I would be among the first to hit the river with a ‘serious’ view to nailing a fish since the drought had screwed it all up for the resident crew of fly junkies. Smallies were few and far between even before the drought, but they were in there. Now, braving the wind from hell, maybe I could make something happen.

“I shoot André a message – more than twenty years down the line, I need some recent intel. I ask about the carp and the smallies.”

“.. be fucking dope if that fishery came back,” André said, “I smaak a ditch donkey but smallies would definitely be my favourite freshwater fish!” I couldn’t agree more. Nevertheless, I start at the foot bridge, scanning for a donkey. I quickly spot one, but by the time I reach a casting position he’s gone, so I proceed upstream, scanning the water as I go. The river is flowing beautifully.”

Get the full story in issue 19 of The Mission below:


Photo credits

Platon Trakoshis, LeRoy Botha.