Old Sterkies hand? Then there’s a good chance this article will make you yawn and mutter something along the lines of, “No shit Sherlock”. But that’s alright because, as one of the uninitiated, Tudor Caradoc-Davies put this together with fellow Sterkies neophytes in mind. It’s for Noobs, like him, who have just never made a plan to get to the Free State’s fabled smallmouth yellowfish fishery, either on a DIY mission or guided, as he was, by pros like FlyCastaway.

smallmouth yellowfish at Sterkfontein Dam

Spawning smallies in a stream that runs into Sterkies

I woke up at 5.30am and my back was killing me. In part that was because I had spent so much time casting at cruising fish over the previous two days. It was inevitable something would ache, but it was also because I was sleeping on the couch in the living room of Wildebeest 3. That’s the chalet we – Warwick Leslie, David Reverdito, Peter Whittaker and myself – were staying in at Qwantani Resort at Sterkfontein Dam. It was an appropriate name for our digs given the nocturnal, wild, semi-bovine sounds echoing out of the middle room.

Until this trip I had considered myself, somewhat apologetically when in my wife’s radius, as a champion snorer. From school, to varsity and on many fishing trips, I’ve been labelled that guy. However, after trying to share a room with Warwick Leslie – aka Warrels, aka ‘Snorrels’ – I now realise I am, at best, a Tier 2 player. My fatigue and sheer panic that the Balrog from Lord of the Rings would leap fully formed from his gullet signalled to me that Snorrels had won the snore-fest. I conceded defeat and retired to the couch. What sleep I managed to salvage was intermittent, with scattered birdshot dreams of countless missed fish and a perpetual loop of a phrase veteran FlyCastaway guide Paulie Boyers had shared the night before.  It was an anecdote about a French client who not only liked to shoot cormorants, but he also loved eating them. In fact, the Frenchman thought cormorants so delicious that he described them (no doubt with the requisite chef’s kiss of the fingers) as, “the trout of the sky.” For some reason, that phrase buried itself in my subconscious.

As I lay there I made notes for this story, trying to figure out a way to tell the tale in a fresh way, because Sterkies has been covered so many times before by other South African fly fishing media. And yet, there are still many fly anglers in South Africa, like me, who have never made a plan to get there.

Call it a rite of passage, a pilgrimage or whatever you like, but don’t neglect it like I did. Here’s why.

Elizabeth at Sterkfontein Dam

Casting along the banks at Elizabeth

CLOSE ENOUGH

One of the outcomes of the last couple of years is how fisheries, like the Orange River and Sterkfontein Dam, that have looooong been known and loved by slack-jawed yokels and dedicated yellowfish fans, are getting a bit more love than usual. With international travel curtailed and outdoor activities in general booming after enforced lockdowns, South African fly anglers have been looking harder at their local options than ever before. There are, obviously, downsides to this (see issue 32 of The Mission with Ewan Naude’s piece on over-crowding on the Orange) but, in other ways it is good for the industry, sustaining guides, lodges and tackle shops. The fact is that more people fishing means more people caring enough to protect these places.

Why I had never made it to Sterkies before can probably be ascribed to the deep laziness often associated with people who come from Cape Town, my home town. We are stuck in our ways, and see anything beyond the Cape Fold mountains as a hobbit hike to Mordor and back. Getting to Sterkies is much easier for those in Gauteng or Durban (roughly equidistant from both centres). Getting there from the Cape takes a little more effort – a two hour flight, a 3,5 hour drive including a rapid supermarket dash in Harrismith and a 20 minute wait in the Post Office to replace the fishing licence I’d forgotten at home. Still, I now know, it’s really not that big of an ask.

Leonard Flemming with a Sterkfontein Dam smallmouth yellowfish

Leonard Flemming with a Sterkfontein Dam smallmouth yellowfish

DECEPTIVELY “WORLD CLASS”

“World class” is how Sterkies is described again and again yet, if you’re doom-scrolling through social media it’s not immediately obvious just why people say that.

A large reason is the visual aspect. What you see of Sterkies in other people’s trip reports is like that sunset photo from your family holiday – they don’t do it justice. Photos on social media of a bunch of guys (either bent over cradling a bank side yellow or sitting on the deck of the boat doing the same) seldom manage to show off the magnificence of the fish or the surroundings. When I asked him why this is, professional photographer Ryan Janssens said, “I think mainly because it’s so open and flat, usually with these big open skies. Other than the angler, there’s not much point of interest in the shot.” It’s definitely one of those places that is incredible to see in person, but weirdly average in a regular Joe’s mobile phone snaps.

Similarly, and I feel like a traitor for saying this, smallmouth yellowfish need an agent. To people who have never caught them before, they just look like fit carp. With their mild onderbek (under-mouth) they simply don’t come across as menacingly predatory as do most of the planet’s more famous freshwater game fish. Instead of the Ramboesque jawline of dorado or Nile perch, the pronounced kype of trout or salmon and the cartoon villain teeth of tigerfish or payara, smallies sport sets of lips that vary from snub-nosed to pulchritudinous. Their eyes hint more at fear and self-preservatory caution than the ability to cause chaos and carnage of their own.

And yet, when you talk to any of the legion of yellowfish fans in this country, you will soon realise from the rapturous response that there must be reasons why smallies are so highly rated. All it takes is one visit to Sterkies or the Orange River (or even a great day out on the Vaal River) to remove the blinkers from your eyes.

 

That smallies fight harder than any trout is a given, but they have much more stamina than most other lauded African freshwater gamefish species like tigerfish. Many would argue that they fight harder, pound for pound, than their more beefy brethren, the largemouth yellowfish. Throw all those qualities together and serve them up in an incredible setting like the Eastern Free State and it starts to make perfect sense why Sterkies deserves its place among the world’s special still waters, alongside Jurassic Lake in Argentina, Pyramid Lake in Nevada and Lake Thingvallavatn in Iceland. And that’s even before you’ve got to “the how” of fishing at Sterkies.

Read the rest of this story and a whole lot more in issue 33 of The Mission below. As always, it’s free.