The Orange River is one of the largest river systems in South Africa, stretching a mind boggling 2200km, from the highlands of Lesotho, flowing westwards into the Atlantic Ocean. Home to the biggest sharp tooth catfish found in our country. The Orange River winds its way through arid parts of the country with very little angling pressure and farming communities along its banks. Not only known for its catfish but also a fly fisherman’s dream come true when fishing for large and small mouth yellow fish, both indigenous to these waters. Back in 1995, I was paging through one of the local angling magazines, when I came across an article about the monsters that inhabit these waters, I was hooked and the rest is history. Twelve years later a few anglers and I have been fishing the river year on year. It was not an easy start and our research on both the river and its inhabitants was pain staking, with little to no information on where and how to catch these big fish. We had to start from the ground up and through trial and error, developed our own system to target these fish.
Back then there were only a hand full of places that anglers could fish the river and they were usually situated near the few towns close to the river. Today there are a host of venues along the river that cater for these kinds of fishing adventures. Private farms along the river have opened their doors to anglers and even though there are more places to fish the best places are but only a few.
As for the catfish well they are big, strong and aggressive and nothing like those we are used to catching in all our local dams. These catfish are at the top of their food chain with little to no natural enemies and a bounty of natural food sources. And being river dwelling they contend with strong currents and fast flowing water which makes them relentless once hooked.
With fish reaching weights close to 100kg and lengths of over 2 meters it becomes somewhat of battle fishing for them. Now I have not caught any really old monsters and to date my biggest I’ve been able to land is just short of 50kg. It’s those that I couldn’t land that take me back every year. The locals along the river talk of monsters that sound unreal but after twelve years of fishing for them, I’m a believer of their folk tales. Seeing is believing and a few of us have vivid images of big catfish making a meal of drowned goats and sheep that land on their menu. But nothing prepares you for that first big take when what you thought was overkill in tackle and gear then seemed too weak or under rated against the violent foe that got hold of your bait.
It’s not a complicated affair to catch these fish. The rigs are simple and the bait nothing but what they feed on naturally. It’s more where to find them and how to look for them and this is what makes certain stretches along the river prime areas. Big catfish are lazy and they tend to hole up in deep pools with slow flowing currents. The prime time for feeding is at night and during the day they will move along the slow flowing areas in the shallows were they know food will be washed up on the sand banks and against the rocky out crops along the river. They are creatures of habit and as we learned over the years will patrol a certain stretch of river in a zig-zag formation scouring the river for anything dead or alive. On two different occasions we caught the same fish four times in the same area in a matter of a day. The best bait is mudfish, yellow fish and carp heads. And when trying to get the biggest catfish the saying: ”The bigger the bait the bigger the fish” is very true. With mouths big enough to swallow a 6kg fish whole they are not shy.
Knowing everything about these fascinating species and understanding their habits will go a long way in your attempts to catch them. As for the tackle needed to battle these catfish, well it’s nothing short of gear meant for the sea. Armed with 6 foot jigging rods, tuna rods and reels that are made for ocean game fish like the Penn 500 or Diawa SL 50 reels, filled with strong abrasion resistant 20-50 pound Berkley line, 80 pound leaders and circle hooks 12/0 and bigger. Not every bait will get you a monster but being prepared for when it does take your bait is worth every cent spent on strong tackle. Not only do you have to contend with the sheer strength of these big fish but also their cunning methods to wrap you up in structure and between rocks and if they manage to reach the stronger flowing water, well then you have your work cut out for you and you can be sure that an hour in the gym will be a walk in the park. Once the fight is won you face round two and landing a 30kg plus catfish usually ends up in loss of skin, finger nails and other injuries if you don’t do it right. Being strong river swimmers these catfish are one big muscle and on dry ground they trash around with brute force. As one of my friends found out after landing a 25kg catfish that gripped his fingers in its mouth and with one swing of its body put him flat on his back knocking his wind out and removing all the skin off his fingers. With two sets of fine teeth on the top and bottom of the mouth they are able to grip and hold on to anything they grab. Almost the same effect as that of very ruff sand paper. They also have a very strong bite force and there are very few things that would survive a solid take from those jaws. Monster fishing the Orange River is a adventure second to none.