TWO BOYS AND THE OTHER YELLOW

TWO BOYS AND THE OTHER YELLOW

For James Topham and his buddy Craig Pappin, catching Bushveld smallscale yellowfish was a lifelong quest. As featured in The Mission Issue 06 (Nov/Dec 2017). Photos: Abel Vabond, Craig Pappin, James Topham

If you were rafting down the Sabie River in the Lowveld circa 1997, you would have seen two naked boys diving in and out of the white waters of a rapid the tour guides called “Devil’s Knuckles”. That was my mate Craig and I, and we were probably doing one of several things:

  • 1: Shooting the rapid and seeing how long the current would keep us underwater. Rafters – in their helmets and life jackets – were sissies, and the enemy.
  • 2: Snorkelling with improvised spear guns to try catch one of the nearly impossible but monstrous Bushveld smallscale yellowfish.
  • 3: Perching in an overhanging fork in a Matumi tree, attempting to take a well-aimed poo onto your inflatable raft.
  • 4: Blowing up tree stumps with quarry-grade explosives we bought from a shifty-eyed, crazy store owner. We’d have to ask, “Do you have the Maharaja?” and he’d reach behind the counter and produce the contraband.

We’re a little more grown up now and so I will dwell a little more on point #2, but if you catch us having a beer we’ll happily elaborate on the others.

We spent many hundreds of hours in that river. There wouldn’t even be a discussion about weekend plans. We swam it when it was cold, we shot the rapids when it was in flood, we even went down and snorkelled the weekend after the farmer’s dog was taken by a croc. I can’t remember how we justified that one. Stupid dog? Small croc? Either way it didn’t deter us from spending every waking hour in the water. And all that time the big yellows swam around us, for the most part un-harassed.

“I remember looking at the lifeless limp fish and not knowing what to do with it. Craig and I have never killed another native fish.”

Craig and I were using spear guns as a last resort, and you’ll be happy to know that they weren’t made well enough to snag any of the fast yellows that darted past our masks. We did get a redeyed labeo though. I remember looking at the lifeless limp fish and not knowing what to do with it. Craig and I have never killed another native fish.

Bushveld smallscale yellowfish

We knew very little about yellows. All we knew was that they were damn hard to catch. We’d tried worms, crickets, spinners, mielies, dough, bread and even small tree frogs once – but putting them on the hook put us off that very quickly. The only person we knew who was good at catching them was an old Shangaan farm labourer who wandered the river with a mielie meal bag, a net strung around a circular hoop of 8-gauge fencing wire, a long reed and a Lucky Star tin of worms. We didn’t know his real name, so we called him Richie Tin Fish and we’d watch him throw his wire hoop in the river and haul out yellows until his mielie meal sack was a quarter full. It’s a fond memory, but I’m glad that the days of netting those fish are over.

Bushveld smallscale yellowfish

“We turned our focus to the farmers’ daughters. Craig, being a few months older, was far more successful.”

And so with Richie Tin Fish netting the river we knew that the yellows were uncatchable. The game was up. We turned our focus to the farmers’ daughters. Craig, being a few months older, was far more successful. At about the time Craig and I were comparing pubes and talking with wobbly voices we got fly rods for our birthdays. We fished for trout (because fly rods were for trout, you know, that’s why they called them trout rods). We tried once or twice in the Sabie but the yellows don’t like a Mrs Simpson fished downstream. Sometime during the big floods we went to different boarding schools and although we saw each other over the school holidays and continued fishing together, trout and bass and farmers’ daughters had taken over and the yellows were left alone.

Bushveld smallscale yellowfish

Then parties and getting drunk were more important. And then there was Matric. The wide world and big cities and varsity and marijuana and paying rent and waitering and paying off student loans and even the farm girls got replaced by city girls who demanded far more attention and yet more money and more waitering and delivering pizzas and less time on the farm and then real jobs and no time on the farm.

And all the while the yellows swam in the fast water and deep pools of the Sabie.

Richie Tin Fish retired to his house in Bushbuckridge and harassed the yellows in the Ntishi River while his wife swept the dirt yard and tended to their lone mango tree.

“I now had vast fly fishing experience, my avid fishing buddy, the Sabie valley and a bush pub five minutes from the farm gate. The Bushveld smallscale yellowfish, after years of living in peace, were in deep shit.”

I became a guide and fished all over the country and in exotic, remote places all over the world. I even fished for yellows in other rivers and lakes. When I was back home, Craig and I would fish together in the Cape where we had been based after school. But we still talked about the yellows in the Sabie and I still thought they were impossible. I knew that people were catching them in other rivers. The Crocodile, the Incomati, the Blyde, the Elands – but not in the Sabie. Sabie River yellows were far far too clever. I knew of Horst Filter and I knew it should be possible, but I had snorkelled with my friend in the river and I had seen them sucking on the rocks and I just had this feeling that our fish were a million light years away from any other yellow.

And then the universe brought me back home, and it made sure my mate was there with me. Craig’s dad needed his horticulturalist son to come home and start a macadamia tree nursery. And I was now guiding 10 months a year, fished myself single again and had no need to live in the city, so I moved back to the farm. I now had vast fly fishing experience, my avid fishing buddy, the Sabie valley and a bush pub five minutes from the farm gate. The Bushveld smallscale yellowfish, after years of living in peace, were in deep shit.

“I began preparing my tackle. Cleaned my fly line, tested my knots. I tied #18 tungsten nymphs. Rambo montages ran through my mind.”

I think interest in working out the Sabie River yellowfish was re-sparked at the bush pub. Craig’s nursery manager, Abel, had been having success catching the fish on tiny crank baits. He showed us some photos of his fish. They were very very large. We drank another beer, talked about fishing, drank another, decided the Sabie was worth revisiting, and then drank several more. So much for it being a school night.

We began fishing our usual spots, the ones we’d fished in as kids. The heads of deep pools below fast rapids on nice open stretches of water. Our fly selection was standard Vaal River fair, small nymphs and indicators. The river was low and crystal clear, and we caught fish. But they were the small aggressive smallscales we were already used to, and far from the fat fleshy brutes we knew lurked in the river.

“They knew we were there. Craig cast into the pool for another hour – the time it took me to pluck up the courage to let him know he’d spooked the pool 75 casts ago.”

And then we revisited an old pool below a bridge that we hadn’t fished for many years. As we drove over the bridge we looked down into the deep pool, and just on the edge of the sandbank at its tail we saw what looked like a school of specimen carp – but there are no carp in the lower Sabie River. They cruised slowly over the shallows, dropping into a deep hole. There they seemed to forage for a few seconds, and then rise up onto the sandbank again. We watched them feed in this pattern for quite some time, unphased by our shadows cast from the bridge.

Craig walked down to the pool and cast to the fish while I remained on the bridge to spot for him. His cast landed amongst the fish and I saw several of them shudder and scatter from the hole. They had spooked but continued their routine, giving Craig’s nymphs a wide birth. They knew we were there. Craig cast into the pool for another hour – the time it took me to pluck up the courage to let him know he’d spooked the pool 75 casts ago.

“Suddenly the Sabie River smallscale felt achievable.”

However, something had changed. Suddenly the Sabie River smallscale felt achievable. I had seen them cruising the shallows like a Sterkfontein smallmouth. I had seen their gills flaring as they inhaled something tiny. Sure they were spooky, but what big fish in crystal clear water isn’t? I began preparing my tackle. Cleaned my fly line, tested my knots. I tied #18 tungsten nymphs. Rambo montages ran through my mind – but I couldn’t find a red bandanna to tie around my head. The next morning, I had to wait for the sun to get high enough to spot the fish and by 10 o’clock I couldn’t contain myself any longer.

It was a Monday and Craig was at work, but his nursery is directly opposite the farm access to the bridge pool, so I knew he’d be there if I needed him. In fact, I knew I could convince him to take an extended lunch break and fish with me, but this is a one-rod pool, and he’d had his chance. It would be quite nice to focus on my own fishing after months of guiding. At least, these were my justifications for not having my friend with me.

“It was a fisherman’s epiphany.”

By the time I’d arrived at the bridge pool I knew I was going to catch a fish. It was a fisherman’s epiphany – it wasn’t a case of “I’m going to go down to the river to try my luck,” it was quite simply “I’m going to hook a fish now, I just hope I don’t cock this up.” And so that became my focus – ruining the opportunity. I carefully got into position, stripped just enough line off the reel to reach the drop of the sandbank into the hole, and tested the length with a cast to the side. Then the moment came. I picked up the line, back cast under the bridge, and dropped the nymphs ever so gently without a false cast into the depression that lay downstream of me.

The nymphs sank, touched the sand on the bottom of the hole and, impossibly slowly, began to drag back towards me with the eddy’s current. A fish dropped off the shallows shelf and into the hole where my nymphs lay, but instead of cruising past it stopped dead. I kept my eyes on the fish and ignored my small indicator, and sure enough I saw its gills flare for a microsecond, and I struck.

“The proverbial excretia hit the fan.”

The proverbial excretia hit the fan. The strike didn’t move the fish for a split moment. The rod took the full shock of the strike in one big bend. The fish just sat there. Solid. Unmoving. And then it went. I have been lucky enough to catch some of the world’s premier bonefish, and the yellow fought precisely the same. In one straight run downriver it damn near emptied my Shilton CR3 before rolling around in the shallows at the head of the next rapids. I reeled hard as it came back towards me and straight into the mother of all evils – a dead tree’s root ball. I still had backing out, and the fish had no doubt entangled himself deep in the most godforsaken gnarl of twigs and sticks imaginable.

My line was tight, but I dropped my fighting arm to my side, pointing the rod tip to the motherless tree roots. I felt I had lost it already, but I couldn’t bear yanking the line and snapping it off. I could call Craig, but then he’d swim over and if he didn’t get eaten by a croc would surely come back empty handed, and it would be unfair to put that burden on him.

“This was beginning to get stressful.”

So I just stood there, mourning my loss. And then I felt a head shake, and the fish – possibly by some divine intervention – swam out of the root ball. Clear out, without a hitch. And the fight was back on. I yelled with joy, there were so many emotions in such a short space of time. Just as I was imagining holding the fish up for a photo it ran toward the tree-lined bank, and yet again became entangled in unseen structure. This was beginning to get stressful.

I fished my phone out my chest pack and called Craig. He answered after half a ring, as if he knew. All I had time to say was “I need your help at the bridge” before the fish came out of the structure and I had to put the phone down. It seemed like I had just managed to put the phone down and Craig’s bakkie was roaring over the bridge above me.

“We remembered how it had started and now the circle was closed.”

My friend netted the fish for me. I had bought a big carp net for my boat and it was large enough to incite fits of laughter from fishing friends who thought it was over-ambitious, but the smallscale filled it and both Craig and I gasped at the size of the fish. Its dorsal fin stood erect like a dhow’s sail and covered the palm of my hand. Its head was the size of two fists, its pectorals wide and fleshy. When I lifted it for a photograph it was awkward in its length and girth, and heavy enough so I had to rest my elbows on my knees while I cradled it for a brief photo.

When released, it kicked strongly and sunk into the depths of the pool. My friend and I laughed and slapped each other’s backs and swore like we had learned when we were 12 and swearing was new to us. We remembered how it had started and now the circle was closed. We stood as two happy boys that had caught a big yellow – not the Vaal yellow, not the Cape yellow, but the other yellow, our yellow.

Read The Mission Issue 06 below.

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