FLY FISHING FOR BARBEL IN THE VAALRIVER

To understand barbel fishing it is necessary to keep the following facts in mind:

  • Barbel are the biggest freshwater predators in our waters (20kg + fish are caught every season).
  • Barbel hunt in shoals in the most dense, plant invested parts of rivers and dams.
  • They always fight as deep as possible - and that of course is where the most snags are.
  • They can be very aggressive or very docile.
  • They eat large meals (birds, fish, frogs and small mammals).

With the above-mentioned facts in mind it stands to reason that the one and two weight fishing fundy's can expect nothing but an unequal tug of war when hooked into one of these brutes.

Because of the enormous population of these fish in the Vaalriver it stands to reason that many flyfishermen in search of the elusive yellowfish often end up doing battle with barbel much to big for the tackle used.

The sole fact that makes barbel such a sought after target is the fact that they gulp air on warm days (when the oxygen content of the water is low) - this makes them a visible target with excellent fly fishing situations as a result.

According to my personal experience with these fish, one can expect barbel action to begin early in September and to stop during May. (The peak season depends on the yearly rainfall pattern - short summer rainstorms act as a turn-on for them - long hard rains cause the river to rise and the water to become dirty - this makes flyfishing nearly impossible).

The influx of fresh water after a rainstorm causes most fish to go on the bite - barbel are no exception.

The annual spawning of the mudfish is the signal that barbel are going on a feeding frenzy that can last for days (even weeks). Mudfish in their millions congregate in the shallow gravel beds between streams and rapids. Here they spawn and this is where the barbel follow them to "vacuum" up the eggs. The biggest spawning activity in the area where I guide; is just below the weir at the Schoemansdrift bridge - Beadhead fly's tied in white, soft pink and brown fished right on the bottom nearly always gets some action. (Barble in the 2 - 4 kg class is caught using this technique).

Big specimens congregate at the foot of rapids in water 1/2 to 1 1/2 meter deep - they also feed very active during the spawning - we sometimes succeed in catching them with large saltwater type fly's (Lefty's deceiver, epoxy minows and Rabbit Leeches). - I have dissected some of these fish - they all had big (1/2 to 1kg) mudfish in their stomachs! (The artlure chaps with 7 to 10 cm. Shadraps really have a ball during these times).

A high river usually stops all fishing for yellows but the knowledgeable fly fisherman can still find spots of feeding barble - the dirty water then dictates the use of highly visible (chartreuse, fluorescent red/orange) fly's).

Now that I have explained the basic facts I will describe a typical outing on the Vaalriver between Schoemansdrift and the Elgro Lodge where I guide and conduct white water rafting safari's

To start off with, I advise my clients to bring the following tackle:

  • 9 weight flyrod (but feel free to use a 6 - 8 weight - just don't say I didn't warn you!)
  • Matching Floating and/or sinktip line.
  • Ox (6.8 kg) LEADERS plus a spool of 10 - 12 kg nylon fishing line.
  • Longnose pliers or a leatherman tool (to enable easy releasing).
  • An assortment of Big Fly's (no 2 to 8's)

Now the big question - WHICH FLY? Well, any of a big assortment will work - I always advise my customers "Pick a big Fly with black and red in it - use it for 1 hour - if unsuccessful - try anything else!" - The philosophy behind this is that someone in the group are going to be successful, we don't all change fly's after the first fish, but after the second or third fish we all change to the fly that was successful.

The Fly's that have been successful in the past are:

STREAMERS - Black Zonkers; Woolly Buggers and Silver Darters.

NYMPHS - Fluorescent montana nymphs; Olive and Black dog nobblers and Dragonfly Nymphs.

TERRESTRIALS - Flying ants; Van's Cricket; Black ants and Woolly Worms.

If this doesn't satisfy your curiosity any of the next assortment will also work:

Black and orange marabous; Black Matuka; T.V.N.; Booby's; Hamils Killer; Mrs Simpson; Mouse or Frog fly's; Poppers and Walkers killers.

(My own personal choice is a no name fly tied by Tjaart van der Walt of Vaalie Fly's - it is Black rabbit fur with a red, yellow and orange tail tied on a nr 2 hook).

The usual float fishing expeditions start at Schoemansdrift bridge (we use 3.5 meter inflatable white water canoes - 2 persons per boat).

We lazily drift downstream searching for barbel activity.

More often than not we hear them feeding before we see them. Usually they are in the shallows feeding on minnows or in the water grass flats where they feed on dragonfly nymphs, crabs and anything edible (deep water barbel activity in midstream seldom leads to success - but we try them anyway).

We cautiously drift into casting distance and then we target the spot where the most activity occurs.

A slow twitch, twitch just under the water surface with a big, water shifting fly - that can really cause a pressure wave; often results in a heart stopping strike. More often than not it is necessary to strike very firmly (barbel have a very strong jaw clamp and often just hangs onto the hook without the barb really biting into flesh!)

Now the fun begins - a lively 10kg specimen often keeps a chap with a 9 weight rob busy for 20 or more minutes - a optimistic 4 weight angler can be busy for at least an hour! (If he's lucky! - it rarely works that way!).

When big daddy comes along (18 kg+) I usually sit back and enjoy the fight - a thug this size can and often does tow the angler along for a merry ride (Harvey Venter of Windknot Fly Fishers was on the boat when Riaan van der Walt got stuck into an 14 kg + jaws) he eventually landed it after a fight of more than an hour! - believe me this is more fishing that the average trout angler gets in a lifetime!).

Barbel are very sensitive and can detect movements in the water with their whiskers, they can even find your fly during darkness - their eyes are very small thus eyesight is poor - this is why one should not rely on sight alone. This knowledge can be utilized when one fishes under overhanging trees and branches.

Cormorants and egrets always sit on the same branches - (these roosts can easily be found by looking for the whitewashed branches below these roosts). Barbel gather under these branches and scavenge everything that the birds drop (even their droppings).

When activity is seen under these spots (swirls or bubbles). We drift silently into casting distance - now a sinktip line comes into play - a white fly (even a lefty's deceiver or marabou) is cast into this spot and then the angler does NOTHING - JUST WAIT!

The fish would have heard the "plop" of the fly and he is now searching for the tidbit - when he finds it (sometimes after more than a minute!) - wham, slam, bang - the race is on!

A fact that most people doesn't know about barbel is that they love to cruise into rapids - obviously food is then washed down to them and they needn't search for it - this fact has caused many a potential world record yellowfish to turn into a "flat head" - to fight these brutes in running water gives one a new outlook on their ability - I have yet to see anybody land a 12kg barble with flytackle in a fast running stream!

When all else fails a guide must turn to the last trick in the book. Now this technique might cause the purist fly fisherman to protest - but allow me to stress that a FISH ON A FLYROD is what this game is all about.

Artlure anglers have used the technique of "calling" for barbel for quite a few years now - this is done by using a big black leadhead jig - the water is stirred up with the rods tip with the lure hanging ± 50 cm below the rod - the results is astounding - The same can be done with a big woolly worm or any other visible fly that is weighted with a spit shot or two.

A heavy rod (9 weight) is used - the line is reeled up until just the last 30 to 50 cm of the leader is left hanging from the front eye - the fly is dropped into the water (next to reeds etc.) with a loud plop, then the water is softly stirred with the rods tip - The sequence that works best for me is - plop the fly hard into the water - shake your rod with just the front guide in the water, do this for 8 to 10 seconds, now slowly lift your fly out of the water and allow it to drop back into the water exactly where you stirred, repeat the drop 3 times - now allow your fly to sink - it should hang motionless for 2 to 3 minutes if you don't get a strike, try once more in the same spot and then move on (once a fish has been caught in a spot you must also move on - hardly ever will you get a second strike in the same spot).

The reason for this action is that barbel are very alert and home in on any unusual commotion that can possibly supply them with a meal. The stirring of the water gets their attention, the plop, plop, plop of the fly then confirms their suspicion - and then they start searching - and believe you me - they WILL find your carefully tied Fly and proceed to destroy it.

Now allow me to warn you of few facts concerning this technique:

  1. It is highly addictable and causes lazy fisherman to rush down to the water before sunup and start hitting the water (that is why the Elgro Lodge barble fishers are often referred to as the "Moses clan").
  2. Don't use your favourite orvis or splitcane rod for this game - it often happens that an over eager big daddy latches onto your rod tip (where he saw the commotion in the water) - Now you will find out what it means to "put a bend in your rod" - sometimes with heartbreaking results. (My personal best barbel on artlure did exactly that and nearly caused my fishing partner to have a heart attack - he released the rod and subsequently returned to engulf the lure - All 23,74 kg of him!).
  3. Your boat must be stationary when doing this - it is useless to try this technique whilst the boat is moving your fly away from the spot of commotion.
  4. As this is short line fishing - don't play the hero with a 3x or 2x leader - the strike is furious and you will only leave the fish with a hook embedded in its jaw - I advise my clients to use a ordinary 13 kg + section of line tied directly to the fly line - if you think this is excessive you obviously haven't seen or felt the strike of a big barbel - Artlure chaps use 22 kg + line and I have seen them being smashed up quite often.
  5. Tighten your drag as tight as possible - otherwise you will burn your hands and lose your fish.
  6. As soon as the fish is hooked move out to open water, do not give an inch! - you can release your drag as soon as you are in a position to do battle - that is why 2 persons fish on one boat - one rows and maneuvers the boat - the other does the fishing.
  7. Use barbles hooks - this makes the release much easier (what are you going to do with a big slimy flathead in your boat for the rest of the day, anyway?)

The presence of barbel and the activity they are busy with; will determine thetactics to use:

  • When feeding top water (they schoal and swim with their whiskers and open mouths in the slow moving water below rapids). - they are obviously feeding on floating material - now a floating line with a dry fly can be used.
  • I have often seen fish hooked in this way but I still cannot decide if they took the fly on purpose or if they just gulp up anything that comes their way and thus end up being hooked.

Be warned - shoaling barble feeding this way look very promising but these fish are very skittish, one loud plop of a fly line and they are gone - cast well above them and only retrieve/pick up when the line is well past them).

When barbel are visible under bridges and overhanging trees as well as in shallow watergrass a big black fly that is simply dipped in front of them often caused them to strike furiously (again a cast isn't even necessary).

Rollcasting repeatedly so that the fly plops into the same place often entices them to strike.

I conclude by stressing that long distance casting is hardly ever necessary, any novice can flyfish for barbel - children on float fishing safari's with me often catch the most fish - simply because they keep on casting when adults search for better spots.

Hope to see you on the river soon.

PIET GOOSEN