Rudolph's Reel Adventures

The story behind our win at the 2017 SAALAA Nationals

Venue: Vanderkloof Dam

Date: 3 to 6 April 2017

At the previous SAALAA Nationals it was decided that, for the first time ever, the next year’s Nationals and Trials will be hosted by SAALAA at Vanderkloof Dam. This was great news for my dad and I, as we know the venue quite well.

For those of you that don’t know the venue well, here is some background regarding this venue. Vanderkloof (VDK) is the second biggest dam in SA; about 100 km long with 600 km shoreline – it is massive! Most of the dam is surrounded by cliffs; here and there you can find shallow flats. The dam has almost no fishing pressure due to its massive size. VDK is renowned for its healthy population of endangered largemouth yellowfish; an abundance of this species is found here and many trophy fish have been taken from these waters (biggest 11.3 kg on FLY!). The dam also boasts with plenty of smallmouth yellowfish (though the majority is under 2 kg), huge catfish (rumoured to hold beasts of up to 30 kg) and decent size carp. Other species found in the dam include Orange River Mudfish, Moggel, Dwarf Kurper, Vlei Kurper, Largemouth Bass and Three Spot Barb (ghieliemientjie).

For many years the dam had high water levels which resulted in large parts of the dam having clear waters which made sight-fishing a joy. Due to the recent drought, the dam lost a lot of water and this resulted in murkier waters with limited visibility on the dam. My father and I knew this dam to have great visibility as we always fished it while the water level was high, now the dam changed into a whole new venue. Our past experience and spots, proofed to be of little value for this event. At this stage the Berg River inlet was the clearest area on the dam with about 30 cm visibility, from Groot Water and further up towards the inlet, visibility was extremely poor.

Evert and I were to fish together as one of the 8 teams who competed in the B Team Division at the Nationals. We had to days of practice to find our spots and figure out the right patterns to catch as many as possible species. We also needed to catch 2 of each species and were allowed to catch 2 bonus fish.

Practice days:

On the first practice day we spend several hours to figure out a pattern for the largemouth yellowfish. It seems like the lack of visibility had a direct impact on the largies as they were extremely difficult. We had no luck with the largies via spinning or trawling. After no luck with the largies we decided to try for dwarf kurper. I pre-fished the dam before it was closed for fishing (about 3 weeks before the tournament) and in this time we figured out the pattern for dwarf kurper. Lucky for us, the pattern hasn’t changed and we quickly managed to catch a few dwarf kurper at one of the spots that produced during the pre-fishing trip. We saw plenty of smallmouth yellowfish cruising on the surface at several spots. We knew that a dry fly would probably the most effective way of targeting them, but we decided to try and catch them on small floating cranks (as this technique worked well for us during the pre-fishing trip).

Our technique involved casting a tiny floating crankbait (colour didn’t matter, size must be max 4 cm) in front of the cruising yellowfish. Some yellows prefer that the lure falls in front of them with a splash, while other preferred to that the lure is placed on their feeding route without causing a disturbance. We managed to catch a few yellowfish on this technique, but it didn’t take us long to realize that a dry fly presentation is the most effective option for these fish.

On the next practice day, we once again started out looking for largemouth yellowfish and again we didn’t manage to catch or see one of them. After a few hours with no luck, we decided to head to Hondeblaf inlet to see if we could pattern the catfish. We arrived here at 10:00 which was a bit late in the morning to try for cats. We decided to try the popping technique as it proofed to work well for us during the pre-fishing trip. Moggel was jumping all over in Hondeblaf and there were virtually no wind present – perfect conditions for targeting cats via popping. Evert was on fire as he managed to quickly catch 7 cats, including a nice 12 kg job with half a moggel’s tail sticking out of its mouth! I struggled to get any action, but managed to catch 2 small ones. It was clear as daylight that the effectiveness of your popper in making a loud popping sound has a direct impact on your success with this technique. Evert and I tried different variations of poppers on this day, but his popper made a much louder popping sound and this allowed him to nail the cats.

We left the cats and moved on to search for tailing carp on the flats. We noticed that the carp were feeding extremely shallow. This made it difficult for us to get close to them. We saw a decent carp tailing with an accurate cast, Evert managed to catch the beaut. We also found some carp on another shore.

At this stage we figured out the pattern of 4 of the 5 species that were coming out. It was only the largemouth yellowfish that we couldn’t master as we prepared to take on the first day of the Nationals. From what we could gather, very few largies came out in our province. It seemed that they were a lucky catch with no strict pattern.

Day 1 of the SAALAA Nationals:

We decided to head straight to Hondeblaf as we pulled away. Many boats had the same idea, but there were enough fish around so this didn’t worry us much. We headed straight to the spot where Evert nailed the cats the previous day. There was a little chop on the water, but not enough to change tactics – popping worked for us the previous day, it should come through for us again!

It didn’t take long before I went tight with the first catfish. I decided to use a Halco Rooster Popper (both hooks removed) as the popper above my pumpkinseed, as the popper I used the previous day, did not impress me. The Rooster Popper made a much louder sound and it immediately got more attention from our whiskered friends. One thing that I noticed with all the different poppers I tried on this trip, is that a small size pumpkinseed seemed to pop better than the large size ones. The Rooster Popper was very big and didn’t cast as well as the smaller profile poppers, but it made a much better sound and I therefore felt confident to sacrifice casting distance for more effective popping. In a matter of minutes we have filled up our quota of catfish with 7 catfish to choose from (average of 4-5 kg).

We decided to stick around to see if we could catch a bigger specimen. I saw a small mudfish jump out of the water close to me and decided to cast close to it – maybe it was fleeing from a big catfish?! I gave three hard pops and waited a few seconds…again I gave three hard pops and waited a few second…(plop!)…my popper disappeared below the surface and I was on!

The fish peeled the braid of my reel and I could feel that it was a bigger fish! I kept tension while adjusting my drag and positioning the boat to keep the trollingmotor away from the fish. It was a strong fish that kept me busy for at least 10 minutes. I didn’t think it was a monster when it took my lure, but when it surfaced next to our boat, both Evert and I was amazed by how fat this brute was! We quickly measured the fish and took a few photos. Before releasing it, we decided to weigh it and it pulled the scale to 17.3 kg – my new PB for the popping technique! We revived the fish and released the brute. Both of us were psyched to catch such a trophy fish in the Nationals; this fish were sure to give us some very valuable points!

Just on a side note guys; all catfish and yellowfish were measured for this comp. So, every team would measure their catches on a measuring tape supplied by SAALAA, a photo of the catch would be taken with the angler and then a video was made of the fish as it was measured and released on the spot. This was the first time ever for SAALAA to use this format in a tournament. It actually worked out pretty well as there were no fatalities as we would see with weigh-ins. This is a very conservation-minded approach which should be carried over to all aspects of artificial lure angling.

We tried to upsize our catfish for a while before deciding to hit the next species. We first headed to our spot where Evert caught the carp on the practice days. Here we came across a nice size carp tailing in the shallows. On Evert’s second cast he went tight with the rubber-lipped specimen and after a very good fight on his casting setup, we netted the fish and celebrated with a custom high-five! It was a very nice size specimen of just over 3 kg (most carp that came out during this event was under 3 kg). Sada Leadhead with some accurate casting did the trick! We didn’t see any more carp in the area and therefore headed to Tiger Islands to see if we could find some carp tailing on its flats.

At Tiger Islands we came across numerous tailing carp. Most of them could be spotted by the dust clouds they were kicking up in the area. One would stand by and carefully watch these clouds for a tip of a tail that appeared every few seconds. In a few instances, the carp would create a bubble trail, which made it a lot easier find out exactly where they were feeding. Most carps made it difficult to see where they were feeding and patience was the name of the game. Both of us dipped our leadheads in front of numerous carp with no success. I did however manage to catch three smallmouth yellowfish that were cruising in between the carp in the shallows. They didn’t hesitate to take a leadhead neatly presented in front of them. All three were decent size measuring in the 40 cm mark in the v. First time catching smallmouth yellowfish on dipping with a 13 ft. rod lol.


The carp were getting on our nerves as we would continue dipping for them with no luck. Evert eventually made the call to switch his large Sada leadhead for the smallest Sade leadhead he had available. With his very first dip on the small leadhead, he was on!

At this stage we had three of our species full and our two bonus fish was covered. We only needed to full up with dwarf kurper to have four full and then we could try our luck with catching a bonus largemouth yellowfish.

We headed to our spot for dwarf kurper and I managed to catch two specimens on a micro fishing rig quite easily. Dipping in very shallow water between the crevices produced the goods. For the last two hours of the day we tried our luck at catching a largemouth yellowfish via trawling and spinning with no luck.

After Day 1 we ended up being third on the log, with less than a fish being the difference between us and the two teams lying above us on the log – our fish just needed to be a little bigger.

Day 2 of the SAALAA Nationals:

It was crunch time! We did well to be under the top 3 teams after Day of the Nationals, but now we had to continue at the pace and if possible, try to improve on this result. It was a little bit cooler on this day and the wind was blowing strongly as we pulled away. We headed straight to our catfish spot at Hondeblaf and decided to stay with our game plan of the previous day.

With the wind being present and a chill in the air, the catfish weren’t nearly as active with the previous day. We tried popping at several spots in the river, but we didn’t get any action. Thinking back, I would say that popping in choppy water isn’t necessarily the best option as we had to compete with the noise of the waves.

Eventually, we realized that a different approach was needed. Evert made the call to head further up the river and try trawling for cats. Trawling produced a few big catfish for Marco Jordaan and his boat during the practice days. Evert decided to trawl a big lipless crank, while I went with a smaller, less bulky, lipless crank. We trawled at idling speed with the outboard.

It didn’t take long before Evert went tight with a big catfish! The catfish gave him one epic fight and he needed to hold on for dear life as the fish towed him across the river. Eventually the fish got tired and we landed the beaut of about 14 kg. We trawled a bit longer and Evert managed to catch another average size catfish on the same lure.

We decided to move on to the next species and rather catch other species for our bonus fish. As we headed out of Hondeblaf, we spotted a good looking stretch with flats and some vegetation present. It seemed that the carp preferred areas where the water pushed up in flats between the grasses. If you saw some submerged grasses on shallow flats – there was a good chance of finding tailing carp between the grasses. Evert almost immediately caught a small carp on dipping with a small Sada leadhead. I was surprised at how fast he caught one. As  he waded along the bank  in search of another carp, I decided to try for smallmouth yellows, this approach worked well for us on the previous day. I saw a few nice size smallies cruising next to the banks and had a few takes, but couldn’t manage a hook-up. After missing the same fish 5 times in a row, I had a look at my beetle dry fly and saw that its hook was broken off – no wonder I was struggling so much. Seems that one of my strip strikes snapped the point of the hook, but the beetle still remained intact. Needless to say, I was furious when I realized why I was missing these fish. I would have had at least 3 smallmouth yellows if it was not for this broken hook.

Evert didn’t see any more carp on this spot and the smallies were few, so we decided to move to another carp spot. Ironically, our carp spot of the previous day was dead! Who would think that you could find an abundance of fish on a spot one day and find no fish there the next. I did however manage to catch one smallie on dipping with a leadhead as it was cruising past me.

At this stage we had 2 catfish, 1 carp and 1 smallie. We need at least 6 more fish to achieve the same bag as the previous day. Our next stop was at the spot where Evert caught his big carp on casting the previous day. At first our idea was that both of us would wade and look for carp, but as I got of the boat, I saw a big smallie swim past me. I decided to leave the final carp in the trusty hands of Evert and focus on catching our remaining smallie and maybe try for two more smallies as bonus fish for our bag. I must say, this was one epic session!

In about 13 casts, I managed to catch 9 smallies which were all between 38 cm and 45 cm in length. The wind died down and the smallies were cruising all over this bay, many feeding on the surface! At one stage Evert and I had a double hook-up as I caught a big smallie and Evert caught the remaining carp we needed. I remember when we still needed one more bonus fish, I caught a small smallie to fill our limit and as I was walking back to the boat to measure it, I saw a bigger smallie swim towards me. At this stage I released the small smallie (which would have filled our limit) and presented my fly to the bigger smallie and BANG ON! Just like that I upgraded and filled our limit after risking it. This fishing was ridiculous! Evert managed to catch two yellows while false casting and I caught our final big smallie by casting at a subtle disturbance on the water, this resulted in an explosive take and us bagging our final yellow of 44 cm. Our yellowfish tally ended in three 44 cm specimens and one of 45 cm which was very good sizes for the tournament and it would give us some very valuable points.

We left this spot with only dwarf kurper remaining for our tally. We decided to try a new spot and I quickly caught two dwarf kurper; one was between crevices in the rocks and the other one was between vegetation. We had about two hours left to look for largies. We tried several spots, but again the largies didn’t play along.

At one spot I got so involved in the joy of catching smallie after smallie on fly, that I totally forgot about the time. Luckily, Evert checked his watch we showed that we had 8 minutes before weigh-in. If we should pitch up late at the weigh-in, all our fish for the day would be disqualified. I got the fright of my life when Evert mentioned the time to me and it is no surprize that I drove like a maniac to make it back with one minute to spare.

Many anglers struggled to fill up with carp on the second day of the Nationals; the fact that we managed to do this helped us move up the log and win gold in our division. I am very proud of our achievement and must admit that Evert and I make a great team. Northern Gauteng won all the divisions at the Nationals and I am really proud to be part of this great team – well fished gents!

Final thoughts:

  • On less windy days, popping was a very effective method of catching catfish. When the waters became choppy, we struggled to catch catfish on popping. Most catfish came out on trawling and calling on the second day with the windy conditions.
  • Dry flies was a more effective option for smallmouth yellowfish in the murky low water conditions that the dam hosts now. Normally, with higher levels and clear waters, crankbaits work much more effectively than at present.
  • Largies are insanely rare with the low levels and murky waters; very different to how the dam normally fishes for them. The few that came out were generally small; most were taken on dry fly via sight fishing, a few were taken on floating Salmo Hornets.
  • We noticed that the carp were much more prone to take very small leadheads than the normal large leadheads which we normally use at this venue. They were also smaller in general and there were less around. During the drought, a lot of the water grass which was present in the dam, died. With the lack of this vegetation, the carp were much fewer and smaller than usual.
  • It seemed that the dwarf kurper moved from spots – which is very strange. The only places where they were constantly caught, was in bays that was totally protected from the wind.
  • No vlei kurper was caught which is very weird.
  • Only one bass came out and it was caught high up in the dam in very murky water on a tree with a lipless crank during the Trials.

Photo credit to Derek Nell.

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