All about Barkly East/Rhodes yellowfish, by  J.W. Grobler

The Barkly East/Rhodes district is widely revered for being one of South Africa’s foremost trout-fishing meccas. Surprisingly, a lot less hype is made about its yellowfish opportunities during summer, even though it could be considered the ideal destination for those in search of a similar yellowfish fly fishing experience to that found in Lesotho. But with the added benefit of being more accessible and affordable.

Every year smallmouth yellowfish migrate from the Orange and Kraai River up into the river systems of Barkly East/Rhodes. These systems include, among others, the Bell River, Sterkspruit, and Bokspruit. Some of these yellowfish travel as far as 300 kilometers, all the meandering way from Aliwal North, in order to spawn in these rivers and can be targeted during the warmer months of the year between late September up until early March. Then they return to the Orange River and the lower reaches of the Kraai River.

The challenges presented by targeting these amazing indigenous sportfish in these waters truly make for great sport and a humbling learning experience.

The yellowfish around Rhodes are slender, due to their long journey, and take on a beautifully bright liquid gold colour. They are notorious for being hard fighters. The larger specimens are also notorious for eluding even seasoned anglers, due to their wariness in these gin-clear waters. The challenges presented by targeting these amazing indigenous sportfish in these waters truly make for great sport and a humbling learning experience.

The Lower Bokspruit
The Lower Bokspruit

Where to find the yellowfish

Depending on water levels, these migrating fish can move quite high up into the aforementioned rivers, being encountered as far up as the middle-upper reaches of the Bokspruit and Sterkspruit and as far up as Rhodes village on the Bell River. They are extremely active feeders, bordering on ADHD, constantly patrolling up and down long stretches of river in search of food as they recuperate from their long migratory journey.

During the early months of summer they are hard to miss and can often be seen moving in schools in fast shallow water in the tailouts of runs less than a foot deep, often, but not always, as a result of spawning activity. They can also be seen patrolling deeper pools, and from January through to March they predominantly confine themselves to these pools, giving some anglers the impression that they have returned to their winter abode, since they become harder to notice in these deeper waters.

Traversing the meandering Kraai River valley

Rod, reel, and line setup for yellowfish

The rod, reel, and line setup is essentially the same as for trout in the area, three to five weight rods and reels with matching double tapered floating lines for delicate presentations. On the Bell River and on the middle to upper reaches of the Bokspruit and Sterkspruit I use a three weight eight foot rod setup. This enables me to make short technical casts under tree canopies that line the bank whilst the delicacy of the lighter rod weight enables me to use a lighter and thinner leader/tippet setup as not to spook fish in these skinnier and clearer stretches of water.

Francois Grobler with a proper Sterkspruit yellow
Francois Grobler with a proper Sterkspruit yellow

On the Kraai River, lower Bokspruit, and lower Sterkspruit I use a five weight nine foot setup when targeting yellowfish. There are several reasons for this: Firstly, smallmouth yellows of up to six pounds are not uncommon in these rivers and having the added backbone of a five weight will enable you to put sufficient pressure on these fish to keep them out of structure and land them successfully whilst simultaneously ensuring quick and successful resuscitation of the fish. Secondly, the Kraai River and the lower stretches of its two tributaries are somewhat larger than their middle to upper reaches and you will be making longer casts into stronger currents, therefore having a longer rod in these conditions facilitates better line control.

Leader and tippet setup

Lastly, the vegetation is slightly more sparse, with less overlapping  tree canopies and wider river channels than in the middle reaches, hence less technical casting is required, giving you the opportunity to use a longer rod. For leader and tippet setup, I use a nine foot long tapered leader in 3x to 5x with 4x to 6x tippet depending on water flow, water clarity, and what weight rod I am using, going lighter when using a lighter rod or when water flow decreases or water clarity increases and vice versa.

Feeding habits and fly selection

The Barkly East/Rhodes district is an area rich with aquatic and terrestrial life. Several species of mayfly, midge, caddisfly, damselfly, dragonfly, and stonefly live in these rivers and yellows can be found feeding opportunistically on these insects predominantly in their nymphal and larval stages. However, they can also be observed feeding off of the surface from time to time, with rises usually occurring in the form of sipping rises and head pokes, as well as the occasional splashing rise, but this seldom occurs. Furthermore, they have been found to feed selectively on emerging midge pupae in the surface film as well as on sawfly larvae and green beetles when they become dislodged, during gusty summer days, from the branches and leaves of the willow trees on which these terrestrials reside.

Green beetles
Green beetles
Sawfly larvae
Sawfly larvae

Even though it will do you well to have imitations at hand of all the above insects, since you can never be too prepared, yellows do seem to show preference in feeding more on certain insects over others and some fly patterns do generally produce more fish than others in the area. As previously mentioned, contrary to the feeding habits of the yellows in Lesotho, these yellows predominantly feed subsurface and therefore most of your fish will be taken on nymphs.

Fishing patterns in tandem

Mayfly nymph imitations of the Leptophlebiidae, Baetidae, Caenidae, and Tricorythidae families in sizes 12-16, such as a bead head Zak, Pheasant Tail, Flashback Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear, or Hare and Copper are good searching patterns and can be fished in tandem with a smaller and more impressionistic or imitative fly pattern for finicky fish. Midge larvae (chironomidae family: commonly known as bloodworms due to their red colouration caused by a retention of the oxygen carrying protein called haemoglobin) imitations, such as the Atomic or San Juan Worm, in sizes 14-16 are highly effective and I often fish them on the point in conjunction with a larger and heavier search or attractor pattern or on their own to fussy yellows in slow water.

Atomic worm
Atomic worm
Zak Nymph
Zak Nymph

To imitate emerging midge pupae I would recommend a Suspender Midge in black, which sits in the surface film to imitate midges on the verge of hatching, or a Disco Midge, fished under the surface, to imitate the early phase of their emergence. The invasive crack willow tree population has recovered well in Rhodes, since they were first cut down during the mid 2000’s as part of a water saving project, and sawflies and green beetles are once again abundant in the area.

Sawfly larvae imitations

Therefore, having a few imitations of these terrestrials in your flybox will only prove advantageous. Particularly during times of selective feeding as mentioned earlier. Fly patterns that imitate sawfly larvae well include Mario Geldenhuys’ Inchworm pattern, or a San Juan style worm tied with chartreuse green chenille treated with loon hydrostop or floatant, in sizes 14-16. Lastly, the green beetles have iridescent wing cases of green and gold, and pale yellow to amber coloured underbodies with short brown legs. I tie a simple imitation of it in sizes 14-16. I use antron dubbing in golden stone colour for the underbody, loco foam in beetle green colour for the wing case, and brown saddle hackle for the legs.

An average-sized yellow for the area.

How to approach them

Yellowfish in Rhodes can be exceptionally skittish, especially the larger ones. This is due to factors such as the high water clarity in the area and the increased fishing pressure between November and January. A cautious and technical approach becomes crucial. Moreover, unlike the trout in these rivers, which mostly maintain a position in the river facing upstream whilst feeding, yellows patrol up and down the river. This makes them much more difficult to approach without being noticed. The incorporation of the following pointers will most certainly increase your success rate. 

Probably the most obvious but also the most disregarded principle: keep a low profile whilst approaching the water’s edge. And I don’t just mean hunchback of Notre Dame stuff. You really need to get down low and move slow. Use any structure, for example trees, reeds, grass, or boulders on the riverbank to your advantage to hide behind. Keep in mind, the slower and less turbulent the water the more likely fish are to notice you. Approach the water accordingly. Keep false casting to a minimum, and it is absolutely essential to avoid drag.

Drag’s a drag

Even though yellowfish do not question the validity of mayfly nymphs miraculously falling from the sky upon presentation, they do, however, respond adversely to drag. I have witnessed on numerous occasions how fish refuse a fly when the slightest sign of drag is present, sometimes sending them darting off with anti-predatory pheromones in their wake, essentially spooking all the other fish in their vicinity.

If casting upstream or up-and-across, mending your line against the current will help counter drag in faster water and a well executed tuck cast in slower pools will make your fly sink more naturally rather than being dragged downstream, barely beneath the water’s surface, upon presentation, which is important since yellowfish often inspect a fly as soon as it hits the water. When casting to a sighted fish in clear water, wait for the fish to pass you or to face away from you before casting to it. Moreover present the fly at least two feet away from it in slower water, anything closer is likely to startle the fish, especially when nymphing.

You can also ambush fish by studying their patrol routes. Yellowfish usually follow the same route numerous times throughout the day whilst patrolling a stretch of river and one can easily identify these routes by spending a few extra minutes observing fish rather than just casting away. Once you have identified a patrol route, present the fly in that area whilst the fish are absent from it, then just wait patiently and attentively for a fish to come by and eat your fly.


This method, which is mostly applicable to slow stretches of water, has several advantages over blind-fishing or conventional sight-fishing. Firstly, you are less likely to spook fish through false casting or an indelicate presentation. Secondly, your fly, if nymphing, has the time to get into the feeding zone before the fish come along. Lastly, because this is a sight-fishing method at close quarters, you will be able to see a fish take your fly rather than having to depend on your strike indicator to register a take.

A sighted fish that mouthed a small nymph imitation on the drop.

Strike detection

Takes are quite obvious when fishing with a dry fly. But they are a lot less obvious when nymphing, because of how subtly these fish feed subsurface. I have often seen fish eat a nymph imitation and spit it out, whilst it was fully suspended under a yarn indicator, without the indicator registering in terms of dipping under the water surface, even though there was no discernible slack in the tippet between the fly and yarn indicator. Therefore, takes that go unnoticed might be one of the biggest reasons why some anglers aren’t catching as many yellows in the area as one might expect given their vast numbers in early summer.

Look out for the following signs in your indicator, when blind-fishing, that could indicate a take and rather err on the side of lifting your rod when in doubt: Any hesitation in your indicator. If your indicator abruptly pulls to one side or the other shortly after your presentation. If you notice small vibrations in the water surrounding your indicator.

When sight-fishing the following signs and behaviour of a fish could indicate that it has taken your fly: A golden flash (less apparent on overcast days) caused by the fish moving on its side as it takes the fly. The fish suddenly moves up or down at a thirty degree angle. If the fish pauses it is either inspecting or taking your imitation, if the pause is accompanied by movement in the fish’s mouth then it ate the fly. And lastly, if the fish twirls near your imitation it’s also indicative of a take.

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