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Highland gold

Targeting yellowfish in Lesotho’s Bokong River

By Tim Rolston

, |

Highland gold

Targeting yellowfish in Lesotho’s Bokong River

By Tim Rolston

, |

The fishing at the Makhangoa Community Camp on the Bokong River in Lesotho is something of a crapshoot, but when you hit it right, well then all your troubles fade away as the reel screams. The Bokong River, which is one of the main feeders of Katse Dam, is a spectacularly remote spot, and troublesome to reach. Where the road ends, and donkey tracks provide the only access to the clear waters of the Bokong, you can – if the gods favour you – find fishing that is out of this world.

The journey

Twelve mind-numbing hours of continuous driving, white-line fever and junk food get us from Cape Town to Bloemfontein, which – while it’s more than halfway, mileage-wise – is still a long way from our destination.

After a mosquito-troubled sleep, we head off in the predawn darkness for another seven hours on roads that will become progressively more serpentine, narrower and finally disappear entirely.

Once across the border into Lesotho, the surroundings become more and more rural the further we head into the mountains. Taxis give way to ox wagons and horses on the road and, as we start the long-haul climb up the Mafika Lisiu Pass, excitement builds. We are getting close now, at least in terms of distance, but the winding byways of Lesotho mean we are still hours away from our destination. The temptation to speed up is countered by the terrifying contours of the road. Our ears pop and the brakes smoke as we wind our way back down to Lejone and our first sight of the massive Katse Dam.

Weaving along the convoluted road, we make our way through Thaba-Tseka and finally reach the dam wall and a view of Katse Lodge. Not far now, but still an hour’s driving as the road gives way to 4×4 track around Katse’s periphery.

Talk turns back to fishing now – the river is flowing strongly, perhaps a little too strongly but we are nearly there – and finally the Makhangoa Community Camp is in view. The camp is run by African Waters, a fly-fishing destination and guiding operation primarily targeting African fish species in both fresh and salt water.

The perfect position of the camp allows us to quickly take in the conditions on the river: the water is high, perhaps a bit too high, and slightly coloured, but that isn’t going to stop us wetting line in the afternoon.

courtesy african waters

The fishing

The whole point of this near-endless journey is to hopefully find the yellowfish of the Bokong River doing what they are renowned for: eating terrestrial insects (and with luck our copies of them) in crystal-clear water.

The fish move into the river in the summer months to spawn and find food, because the massive expanse of Katse Dam isn’t particularly fertile in terms of providing sustenance for thousands of fish.

If it doesn’t rain enough, the fish don’t move up the river; if it gets too cold, they return to the relative comfort of the dam. If it rains too much and the river floods, the fish may be there but catching them is difficult. It is a giant gamble, one we have taken previously with varying levels of success. This time things are looking good, but there are thunderclouds in the hills, harbingers of more rain and possible flooding.

That afternoon we catch some fish on heavily weighted nymphs – not what we really came for, but after two days in a car we are determined to make the most of the situation.

Overnight the heavens open and rain pours from the sky in solid sheets; the river becomes an angry mess of brown water. We are woken by the roaring of the rapids directly below the camp, and the grey skies match the mood of the group of disappointed anglers around the breakfast table. We decide to drive the hour-long trip back to the dam wall to fish for trout in the low waters of the Malibamatso. With the dam low from years of drought, the floods won’t affect the waters downstream; it isn’t what we came for, but it is better than nothing.

The following few days are much the same, and intermittent thundershowers keep pushing water levels back up just as they start to appear to be dropping. Finally there are clear, blue skies and we fish in high but at least clearing water.

Yellowfish aren’t the darling fish for many anglers for no reason – they are tremendously powerful fish, solid muscle with large tails and a streamlined shape, as though carp had been redesigned by Enzo Ferrari. We catch a lot of fish, our reels scream and our lines burn our fingers, but still it isn’t really what we came for. We continue to fish heavy flies near the bottom in the still, murky waters, but what we are really hoping for is dry fly fishing to visible fish, if only the waters would drop.

Finally

It is the last day in camp, and tomorrow we face the tortuous homeward journey, perhaps without ever taking a fish on dry fly, but there is hope. The water level has dropped, and the sky is clear. Maybe today will be the day.

We head upstream, passing through the Makhangoa village. The people of rural Lesotho always appear cheerful, and children wave as we drive by. Just after the village, the road ends completely, and we hike the rest of the way along the donkey paths that are – from here on – the only means of accessing the river and the villages higher in the mountains.

The river is still flowing strongly, but at least the water is clear and we can see numerous fish in the water. We start off with similar nymphing methods as previously, but now at least we can target specific fish. We do well, catching dozens of strong fighting smallmouth yellowfish. They are still reluctant to come to the surface but, as the waters warm through the day, the fish become more active, and we finally switch to dry flies – small ant patterns to which the fish are quite partial.

Makhangoa Community Camp 2018 - African Waters

There, just alongside the bankside grass, is a large yellow, holding high in the water and definitely looking for food. I cast the ant pattern just upstream and to the right of the fish. My guide James can’t see the fish, but he can see my fly sitting still on the surface a few feet from the bank. I know the fish has seen the fly and as I shout to James ‘she’s seen it’, the fish moves her tail and quietly glides through the slow back eddy towards it. The trick now is not to overreact and snap the tippet or pull the fly away from her too soon. She tilts her head and engulfs the small imitation, and I lift to tighten the line. All hell breaks loose – she screams upstream and then down again; the drag on the reel starts to fail, and now I am at risk of the line tangling as the reel offers little resistance. Finally I have my prize in the net: bright, golden yellow gleaming in the Highlands sunshine. I remove the tiny barbless hook from her lip and, as with all of the fish we catch, she is released back into the water and speeds away none the worse for wear.

The same process is repeated over and over during the afternoon, stalking fish in the now crystal-clear water, making measured casts at sighted fish. We catch a lot and spook a few, but the fishing is absolutely fantastic. This is what we came for, and it will make the journey home a lot less painful – to know that we finally cracked it, and the gamble paid off.

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