A story by Leonard Flemming from issue 20 about a private yellowfish conservation plan

“One day when I’m big I want to be a nature conservationist.”

That was my stock standard answer in primary school whenever new teachers posed the time-tested ice breaker question to calm a class full of ankle-biters and win their hearts.

The idea of saving both wild animals and their habitat that I saw so invitingly illustrated in books was an obvious and noble cause to me. Who wouldn’t want to look after exotic beasts like the exotic hoatzin and arapaima in the rainforests of South America, or the Cape dwarf chameleons and galaxias in our nearby fynbos mountains?

My German uncle, that’s who. A doctor in marine geology, he shattered my idealistic dreams when he told me in no uncertain terms that conservation was a dying field and suggested I find something, “more commercial.”

I couldn’t imagine myself becoming an architect or an accountant, mainly because I couldn’t stand the thought of exchanging my fascination with fieldwork for an office job. So, I chose to go into natural sciences instead. After completing an academic ‘career’ (ten years of my life that felt like a century) with a doctorate in microbiology, the real world felt like a painful slap in the face. I soon realised that jobs involving fieldwork still required >90% screen time; that the general public misunderstood and feared GMOs like they were dangerous aliens from another universe; and more importantly, even though science could bring a wealth of knowledge and environmental benefits to the commercial world, it failed mostly due to mainstream interests to grow companies and increase their profit instead.

In short, the corporate environment just felt like a trap. I spent more and more time fishing, trying to drown the thoughts of personal and ecological suicide in honey holes where humans were seldom encountered and fish were eating my flies like they’d never seen it before. However, fefore I totally spun out, I met several likeminded people who helped pave a new road for me.

Leonard Flemming with a solid largemouth yellow from the Largemouth Yellowfish Conservancy run by Kalahari Outventures

Ewan Naudé was one of them. An investment manager by trade and a yellowfish-obsessed fly fisherman, Ewan had fished the Orange River for several years. Understanding how incredible the Orange is, he had often posed the idea of starting a yellowfish conservation fund to protect their riverine habitat below Augrabies Falls.

Then I met Garth Wellman. After a brief introductory telephone call to introduce myself and discuss the finer details of chasing after those purple Congo yellowfish, I soon found myself on a Pretoria river bank with him for a face-to-face meeting. It’s not exactly the place where you’d catch purple ‘yellowfish’ while dodging crocodiles and hippos in pristine African bush, but it was still very exciting to meet and fish with one of our country’s yellowfish fly fishing pioneers. The numerous fishing days that I have had with Garth over the years were also surprisingly memorable; great fish were landed and conversations entailed interesting fishing ideas for our indigenous barbs. Here was a guy who was a businessman by trade, but a conservationist at heart and it showed.

Garth Wellman with one of the fish that convinced him that the stretch of the Orange river the Largemouth Yellowfish Conservancy sits on was incredibly special.

As I got to know Garth, he explained how yellowfish distracted him from trout and other fish species at an early age, quickly becoming the main focus of his fly fishing explorations across South Africa. He developed a deep affection for the many indigenous cyprinids, so much so that he took on the task of rehabilitating a small Gauteng stream that, while it had traces of largescale and smallscale yellowfish when he found it, was suffering the effects of harmful acid mine effluent draining into it. Now the stream is thriving with yellows and he still frequently visits it to check in on his ‘pets.’ Garth’s attachment to our indigenous fish goes far beyond just yellows. He enjoys catching a wide assortment of species on fly, from the tiniest barbs, like straightfins, threespots and rosy barbs. But, at the pinnacle, he worships at the altar of our own giant mahseer-like largemouth yellowfish.


Get the rest of this story and plenty more in issue 20 of The Mission below or buy the print edition online.

📷 from this story by Garth Wellman, Kalahari Outventures, Matt Gorlei and Leonard Flemming

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