In its last Cederberg river system redoubt, South Africa’s remaining Clanwilliam sandfish population is fighting for survival. They’re a tantalisingly, challenging target on fly. In issue 24, Leonard Flemming runs us through what is being done to save them and how you and your fly rod could help.

An indigenous sandfish from the Biedouw river in South Africa. Photo Leonard Flemming.

Rather than blaming humans for clubbing and eating dodos, science suggested that rats and other ‘alien’ predators that accompanied sailors to Mauritius in the 1500s were likely the undoing of these flightless birds. Within a century from the day the Dutch colonised the tropical island the dodo went extinct. Since then, it is said, that the dodo has been lost twice more. It ‘died out’ a second time when all complete dodo skeletons kept in museums were lost, and finally again when they found two near complete skeletons in a Mauritian’s private collection, but lost the information regarding where exactly the bones were found. Eish, talk about a complicated history.

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Ironically, the dodo’s story reminded me of a rebellious farmer in the Cederberg who urged his workers to club to death spawning sandfish (exposed in shallow rapids) and to stock freezers with endangered fish meat every year.  How dare he!  However, similar to dodo-science, the daft clubbers didn’t cause the first extinction of this animal; it was the alien sunfishes (bass and bluegills) that colonists brought to southern Africa that caused extinction of the Olifants River sandfish population within a century. Since 2002 scientists have not recorded any sandfish in net surveys from the Olifants River. That’s when our dodo fish was lost for the first time.

Sandfish country
Sandfish country. Photo Leonard Flemming

Later, two segregated spawning populations were confirmed in the Doring River system. However, in recent net surveys, only a few adult sandfish were found in the Doring River, indicating a dramatic decline in fish numbers compared to previous research trips. A lack of juvenile fish basically marked the start of the second extinction.   And illegal clubbing of the last adult sandfish obviously doesn’t help.

Leonard Flemming with his son and a rare sandfish.
Leonard Flemming with his son and a rare sandfish.

I’ve been on the look-out for these fish since I was a teenager, but I only encountered a living dodo-fish in my late 30s and trust me when I say I searched deep and wide for these living fossils. I still don’t know much about them besides that they are related to our ‘onderbek’ fishes (undermouth fish, i.e., Labeo species), and more specifically the Orange River moggel (mud mullet). They are scarcer than middle-aged dads that don’t consume alcohol and I have desperately wanted to catch one on fly for a very long time!

My insatiable (and somewhat eccentric) hunger to catch a sandfish, drove me across countless Cederberg mountain peaks. It was only after I got in touch with the mad scientists that were studying sandfish in this vast, arid terrain that I finally found the real deal.

For the rest of Len’s story, get stuck in to issue 24 of The Mission below, for free.


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