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Know your yellowfish

South Africa’s premier freshwater sport fish    

By Tim Rolston

, |

Know your yellowfish

South Africa’s premier freshwater sport fish    

By Tim Rolston

, |

4 min read

Dr Seuss famously wrote One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, but he missed the most important, at least for South Africans: the yellowfish. There are few places in South Africa where you are far from fishing opportunities for yellowfish.

There are six different species in various geographically separate watersheds. Whether you plan to fish for them, or perhaps introduce them, understanding the differences can be important.


The smallmouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus aeneus)

Yellowfish Small mouth - anglinks

Perhaps the best known from an angling perspective is the smallmouth yellowfish, which inhabits waters in the Vaal River and Orange River catchments. That means that they can be found from within the borders of Lesotho (where the river is known as the Senqu) all the way to the coast at Alexander Bay. The smallmouth is an omnivorous predator, eating mostly aquatic insects and invertebrates. Its subterminal mouth is ideally evolved for such feeding on the river substrate. They will, however, rise to dry flies when in clear water, and during prolific insect hatches. Beloved by fly anglers in particular, they can be caught with various nymphing methods as well as dry flies under the right conditions. Not only found in running water, there are considerable populations in various dams within the catchment, the most famous of which, Sterkfontein, holds a great many of these feisty cyprinids. Conservation status is Not Threatened, but continued pollution events in key areas, combined with low fecundity and late sexual maturation, mean that this status could be re-evaluated in time. Plans for ‘sustainable harvesting’ represent an additional treat for the species. Smallmouth yellowfish can attain a weight of approximately seven kilograms.


The largemouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus kimberleyensis)

Yellowfish largemouth - anglinks

Indigenous to the same watershed as the smallmouth, the largemouth yellowfish is an entirely different animal. Largemouths may start life with a similar diet and behaviour to those of their smaller cousins, but as they grow, they become formidable ambush predators. With terminal mouths, heavy shoulders and massive tails, they are custom-designed in adulthood to target small fish species as prey. Younger fish may be taken using similar methods to those employed for smallmouth yellowfish, but the big guys are almost exclusively caught with fish-imitating lures or large streamer flies, imitating their natural fodder fish diet. As ambush predators they are generally targeted near structures, which they use as hideouts when waiting to ambush food. Conservation status is Near Threatened as a result of degradation of their home waters, slow growth rates and late maturity. As an apex predator, they occur in far lower numbers than other smaller species. Largemouth yellowfish can attain the impressive weight of 22 kilograms.


The smallscale yellowfish (Labeobarbus polylepis)

Yellowfish smallscale - anglinks

The smallscale yellowfish, which is superficially similar to the smallmouth of the Orange River system, and will succumb to similar strategies, is found in the cooler waters higher than 600 metres above sea level in the Limpopo, Komati and Phongolo drainage basins. They are primarily insectivorous, but will consume a wide variety of both plant and animal foods depending on season and availability. Its conservation status is Least Concern, and it is thought to be one of the least-targeted species of yellowfish from an angling perspective. They can attain a mass of six kilograms.


The largescale yellowfish (Labeobarbus marequensis)

Yellowfish largescale - anglinks

The largescale yellowfish is indigenous to the same rivers as the smallscale, but it is found mostly in the warmer waters below 600 metres, and is regarded as notoriously more difficult to catch, particularly on fly. Its conservation status is Least Concern. Hardly surprisingly, this species is identifiable by the considerably larger scales as compared to those of the smallscale. This deep-bodied fish feeds in similar manner to the other insectivorous yellowfish species, but takes are notoriously delicate and total concentration is required. They will also rise to dry flies when the conditions are favourable, clear water and insect hatches being key factors. Maximum mass is approximately six kilograms.


The KwaZulu-Natal yellowfish, a.k.a. Natal scaly (Labeobarbus natalensis)

KZN Yellowfish - anglinks

Although confined to the east-flowing rivers of KZN, the Natal scaly occupies much the same ecological niche as the smallmouth yellowfish, and behaviour and feeding are similar, so fishing for ‘scalies’ is much the same as fishing for ‘smallies’. They can grow up to about four kilograms, and their conservation status is Least Concern.


The Clanwilliam yellowfish (Labeobarbus capensis)

Yellowfish clanwilliam - anglinks

The Clanwilliam is something of a different kettle of fish, if you will excuse the pun. Much like the largemouth, this species becomes an apex predator in adulthood, and can attain sizes of up to 10 kilograms. There are serious threats to its habitat, primarily from water extraction and the introduction of alien smallmouth bass, which apparently predate the fingerlings to a considerable degree. As a result, populations have dropped significantly, and It is listed as Vulnerable, so catch-and-release fishing is mandatory. They are endemic to the Olifants and Doring river systems in the winter-rainfall area of the Western Cape.


Papermouth, sawfin and witvis

Yellowfish sawfin - anglinks

The bushveld papermouth (Barbus rapax), the Clanwilliam sawfin (Barbus serra) and the Breede River whitefish (Barbus andrewi) are not true yellowfish but are commonly regarded as such in angling circles. The papermouth occurs in the same catchment as the smallscale and largescale yellowfish, the sawfin in the same catchment as the Clanwilliam yellowfish, and the whitefish only in the Breede and Berg rivers.

Bottom line

Whether you are a fly, art-lure or bait angler, it is unlikely that you are far away from some quality yellowfish angling. These are all strong fighting fish, and well worth your efforts in targeting them. It’s also worth looking into stocking, or conserving, them if you have sufficient suitable water on your estate.

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