past articles written by Malcolm Meintjes

(Author of Zambezi Tiger, Remarkable Flyfishing Destinations of Southern Africa, Trout Through the Looking-Glass and other titles)

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                                                        OF OKAVANGO AND ITS CATFISH RUNS

It’s been some years since I visited the Okavango within shouting distance of Christmas. The last few years’ sorties were undertaken in the cooler months of July and August when, in addition to the respite from the heat, one could explore the lagoons and channels of the western panhandle for the winter bream species.

Late Spring - September onwards - has a different fascination for the flyfisher. At some stage during this period the catfish (also known as 'barbel') begin to assemble for mass migrations upriver and the anticipation of this event, in turn, awakens the entire region. Egrets, herons, cormorants darters and even fish eagles collect along the papyrus hoping to join in the festivities. And tiger fish patrol the length of each catfish pack hoping to snatch more than a sample of the tiny baitfish that will be flushed from the margins. Along the sandbanks on the inside bends of the river, it is inevitable that the occasional crocodile too will lie in ambush, but here the game may be spoilt, for any significant run is invariably preceded by an advance guard of 'scout cats'.

 This preparation is remarkable in itself. The catfish seem to have an awareness of the danger that can lurk where the papyrus gives way to grass and mud banks. Seemingly, by unanimous consent, they will suddenly break from their pattern upon reaching an open section and cross the river to the reeds and papyrus on the other side. The foliage is not only a shelter and relative safety, but provides food where the small 'robbers' and 'bulldogs' hide.

 You may think that with hundreds of catfish breaking the surface, a hurriedly thrown spinner or fly will yield an excess bounty of Clarias, but it is often more the exception than the rule. Usually it is the snatch take of marauding tiger fish that make the heart beat faster.

 It is by no means certain that the day will be filled with action. The first task is to find a catfish run in flurry. Often, there is no more than a hush and some hopeful egrets poised in the papyrus; sometimes one spies a few widespread boils across the breadth of the river but little sign of catfish “working” the banks. Then, the pulse quickness as one senses that all has started to happen somewhat more frenetically. The birds are raucous, the papyrus thrashes and “clucks” and the river downstream turns brown. The first solid take of a river tiger will not be long in coming.

 As usual we worked for our tiger fish which ranged from two to four pounds, but remind me one day to tell the tale of the “water-dog” not far short of ten pounds that attached itself to me. The whole matter still needs thought but I promise the telling will undoubtedly get better with time.

 If there is a world record for silver barbel and micralestes under four ounces on a fly I might lay claim, but on this last trip, I regretfully missed my compatriots, the tilapia. Only a few immature threespot and the odd redbreast were in attendance and it will have to be another time before I can dream once more of coming to grips with these wonderful fighters.