How two saltwater semi-surface patterns unlocked the topwater tiger bite at Pongola and unleashed Richard Wale’s moustache and mullet upon the world.
I was lying on the couch minding my own business in Cape Town when a WhatsApp message pinged from my mate Tyron Knight, with a photo. As the image took a moment to load, I read the proverbial fine print.
“Keep it on the DL and don’t show anyone yet.”
In fly-fishing circles that sort of disclaimer attached to a photo usually means that either the location is sensitive, the fish is spectacular, or the method on which it was caught is unusual. Ty was messaging me from Pongola where he was guiding for Mavungana Flyfishing on Lake Jozini during the autumn tigerfish season. The photo he sent was of Mavungana’s head honcho, Jono Bolton, and the fish he was gripping and grinning was his PB tiger taken on a topwater fly. Jono has been fishing and guiding on Pongola for north of 20 years, so a PB topwater fly-caught fish on that system is, for him, an extremely special fish. But what made it extra-special for me was the fly that was lodged in the scissor of the tiger’s jaw.
It was a topwater Stella, a fly I had developed for a totally different fishery that sits a few hundred metres from my home in Cape Town.
For those uninitiated in the ways of tigers, let me put this into perspective. Ninety-five per cent of the tigerfish you catch on fly are caught deep on fast-sinking lines with heavily weighted Clousers in black and red or black and purple. Whether it’s the Zambezi or other tiger fisheries across Africa, it’s hard to go wrong with that simple yet lethal combination. That’s not to say they are not caught on surface patterns from time to time, when anglers are willing to take along a floating line, some flippers, gurglers and other surface patterns and put in the time in low-light conditions to entice a surface eat. Pongola or Lake Jozini, where Ty was guiding, is a different kind of tiger fishery. You will catch fish the regular way, with Clousers and sinking or intermediate lines, but you stand a very good chance of catching fish on the surface or just sub-surface thanks to Pongola’s unique flooded grassland margins.
Tyron and I have fished and tied flies together quite a bit down in the Western Cape. We share a home water estuary, Zandvlei, on which I developed the Stella to target leervis (garrick) that feed on the vlei’s Gilchristella aestuaria (aka Gilchrist’s round herring, a small shoaling estuarine baitfish) on shallow banks and in weed beds. I fish the vlei frequently and although the mouth is opened and closed on a fairly regular basis, there is generally little to no tidal water movement. Having fished poppers, crease flies, sliders, flippers, etc. for years in the vlei, I have witnessed the nuances of how leerie feed on the Gilchristella. The eat is very different to that of leerie chasing other baitfish. The Gilchristella frolic and swirl in low light conditions, just breaking the surface but not fully jumping out. When the leerie feed on them, the leerie often roll like tarpon or make a sudden gulp on the surface. When the Gilchristella are predated on they appear to panic on the surface, sending out tiny water droplets. If you analyse it for hours on end you will notice that this interaction is quite different from the typical mullet jumping out the water with a leerie hot on its tail.
Determined to improve my leerie catch rate and with Gilchristella action on the brain, I sat at the vice and set about coming up with something that imitated that unique action. I didn’t want the fly to pop, skate or slide, but rather have a bait fish profile just below the surface and something just breaking the surface to attract attention. I started by tying a natural-looking brush fly with a bucktail back section and a sculpting-fibre body. I then landed up tying in some shaped foam that I folded back and glued down to the top of the brush fly. Usually, the fly-developing process requires some trial and error but, in this instance, the fly came out right first time and resulted in the movement I was looking for. As an extra unplanned bonus, the shape of the foam and the glued-in downward slanted eyes resulted in those droplets of water being fritzed when the fly was stripped. Just like a Gilchristella. The fly has consistently produced good fish at Zandvlei and other estuaries. Then Ty tied a Stella for Jono to try on the tigers during a guides’ session on Pongola and it soon became apparent that from species to fisheries this fly had some proper crossover applications.
Read the rest of the story in issue 38. As always, it’s free!