It was way back in varsity (some 10 years ago) when I met Billy De Jong (Bills in short). He was a clean-faced chap that came right with many a pretty girl in the Stellenbosch clubs, as well as he came right with many a good-looking fish on a fly rod.
Bills was a skilled character that showed off talent with nearly everything he tried out. He was a master in underwater hockey, out-played all his action-frisbee mates, and he was also one of the pioneers in underwater fly fishing photography in South Africa. To make things clear, I am talking about the type of photography that would fill a gaping mouth with nothing else but air and silence. This was obviously one of his talents I admired dearly, but it was his ability to shoot out a full 2 wt line in two back-hauls that made me very jealous. I also wanted to look ‘cool’ like that, casually ‘swooshing’ a fly line around tricky corner-pools and in-amongst thickets of rooiels trees. So I fished with him often and observed him carefully, studying his ‘every move’ in the casting stroke.
It was on one of those trips where I silently stood and watched Bills pluck a Jan Du Toit’s River rainbow from under a branch in the head of a pool twenty metres away from us when he told me about it. He spoke of catching Lowveld yellowfishes, as in catching “fish-after-fish”, on dry flies. He said that the fishing was so mental at the end of his line on one particular day that even Gary Glen-Young came over to ask what fly he was using…
He held the fly out to Gary and said in the simple terms only Bills could describe things in: “Hierdie vliegie. Ek dink hulle noem dit ‘n Royal Wulff of so iets?” – English translation: “This little fly-thingy. I think they call it a Royal Wulff or something?”. Well, Gary was not only impressed with his innocent answer, but also impressed (to say the least) with Billy’s achievement. Bills out-fished everybody else on the Komati River that day, he also nailed fishes that were known to be rather tricky on fly (people mostly used/use nymphs and sinking flies for those yellowfish species), never mind mentioning that he was using a dry fly.
More recently, Bills invited me to fish with him on the Komati while I was up in Jo-burg for business-related matters. After taking care of the boring stuff in life, we packed his Merc and shot up to Badplaas for a two-day fishing trip.
We crossed the Komati River on the way to the fishing spot and caught a glimpse of shoaling yellowfish sipping insects off the surface in the pools below the bridge. It was hard to concentrate on the rod-rigging procedure as we readied our tackle for the afternoon rise.
Once we stood at the edge of the river, we could see slender yellow fishes sliding through the shallow glides and riffles. I tied on my trusty girdle bug first and caught a lovely largescale yellowfish a few minutes after we started hurling flies at the visible fish. Although there were rises around the area we were fishing, it was only after dark clouds gathered above our heads and the light was dimmed when the surface of the river came alive with rises.
Bills handed me one of his Royal Wulffs, a biggish fly (about a size 12) that resembled the traditional Royal Wulff, but had green palmered hackle instead of the rusty brown tied in at the thorax. I tied it on and both of us started to cast at the rising fish in the riffles before us. Bills had warned me beforehand that the fishes normally slashed at the dries and typically ate it after drowning it. This meant that a pause was necessary before setting the hook after a strike.
The fishing was just like Bills had described it a decade ago; there were fish rising everywhere in the river – in the pools, the runs, and even in the rapids! Bills was the first to go tight with a smallscale yellowfish that dragged his fly line all over the pool and had us on our toes until the end of the fight before I scooped it into my landing net. It was a well-conditioned fish of nearly twenty inches long.
My first strike came soon afterwards and after the delayed strike, just like one would set the hook on a brown trout, the fish cartwheeled across the shallow pool and into a clump of bulrushes. I gently played it out of the plants and landed a fish that was identical in size to Billy’s.
We fished well into darkness until we could only hear the takes and feel the fish tightening the line before lifting into them. The next day’s fishing, despite of heavy rain that came down the previous evening, wasn’t much different and I would lie if I told you how many fish we caught; simply because I lost count after ten and didn’t bother to continue.