Barbel or Sharp-tooth Catfish *Clarias gariepinus are easily the largest freshwater fish in South Africa and there are some real monsters in the Orange River. So how do you go about catching one?
Recently a group of friends and I set off for a week of wild camping and canoeing down the mighty Orange River. This massive river runs for over 2 200 km starting in the highlands of Lesotho and making its way west through South Africa until it forms the border between South Africa and Namibia.
Our trip began just west of the Vioolsdrift border post (about 700 km from Cape Town) and over 5 nights we made our way over roughly 70km of this wild river, camping under the stars each evening.
Generally after days which consisted of a mixture of navigating rapids, drifting in mirror still water, birding, swimming and occasionally hiking into the barren surrounding mountains we would stop on a secluded beach to set up camp for the night. I had read that the best spots for monster Barbel was in the deep, calm pools often found after a set of rapids, this was what we looked for when selecting our camps.
As soon as we had unloaded our canoes and done the necessary camp set up I was off to get my lines in the water. As with many large predatory fish, the big Barbel seem mainly to hunt and forage after dark so I tried to have all my bait, a line in the water and a nice spot to relax with a cold beer all set up before dark. One of the beauties of fishing on the Orange River is that you can be sitting around the fire chatting with friends with your rod next to you waiting for the big one!
The bait I used was mainly Carp, Orange River Mudfish and Largemouth Yellowfish. It is possible to catch these bait fish on a hook and line and there is certainly no shortage of them but in order to save time (as well as get a better idea of numbers and variety of smaller fish in the river) I opted to use my cast net. Of about 50 or so casts with the net I must have only come up empty about 5 times, the rest of the time it would have Tilapia, Carp, Yellowfish and Orange River Mudfish ranging from 10cm to about 2kg.
Although I did catch numerous smaller Barbel on the smaller fish baits (and one very nice Largemouth Yellowfish of about 4kg) it really did seem that the bigger the bait, the bigger the catch! After dinner I put out half of one of the bigger carp (cut in front of the dorsal fin and then down towards the tail to include the juicy guts) and I got my first really big take.
Unlike the other takes where the drag would be pulled a bit and then stop, this time it was as if the spool had been left open! After picking up my rod I did then open the spool to release the pressure and allow the Barbel to get the bait right into its mouth before striking. I tightened up my drag, closed the spool and struck hard, quickly realising that this was definitely the biggest fish so far.
It only took about 15 minutes to land the fish and at times felt as though I had hooked into a rock, at least until the rock pulled back. Once I had got it into the shallows, by grabbing the 40 kg leader friends managed to land the monster on the sandy beach. I was very happy to see the shock on everyone’s faces as I don’t think anyone really believed me when I said there were fish as tall as a man and that I actually believed I was going to catch one.
Photos were taken, the hook was removed and the old timer was sent back to the river to where I can only imagine how much bigger he/she will get…
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*Clarias: Greek, chlaros = lively, in reference to the ability of the fish to live for a long time out of water; gariepinus: Named after its type locality, the Gariep river, the Hottentot name for the Orange river, South Africa.