By Gerrit Viljoen
Let me start by saying that any Largemouth Yellowfish or “Largie” (as it’s commonly referred to) that is caught using a fishing rod and legit tactics, is a trophy and should be treated with the utmost respect and released using best catch and release practices. That includes fishing with barbless hooks and heavy tippet! I want to further emphasize that my experience with trophy 20lb largies, completely revolves around catching them in the Vaalriver near Parys. My approach is not the end all and be all so consider this as a guideline.
I’ve been fortunate in that since 2013, I have caught a 20lber fish in every single year since. Having landed six fish over 20lbs, and guiding two clients into a 22lber and 24lber respectively, there seems to be a pattern of some sorts repeating itself year after year.
The last thing I want to do is write another “how to” article on how to catch a largie, so I won’t, but you need to take note of the following factors because they will determine your success, fact!
#1 Big fish water (Know your “home” waters)
What is “big fish” water? Well simply put, these waters hold big fish. Why? Because these pools have all the elements needed to sustain a big fish. It has a constant food supply, if there is food, there is fish! It’s condusive to spawning or pro-creation and it provides sufficient protection from predators, natural or un-natural. (Humans)
Where do you catch a 20lber in “big fish” water? In other words what “fish lies” do you need to focus your efforts on?
- Head or tail of pool.
- High banks and a vertical drop with overhanging vegetation / logs.
- Reed edges.
- Boulder or submerged rock ledges.
- Current seams.
The head or tail of a pool is a feeding lie. Fish go there to feed and I must say, chucking a fly at a feeding fish is one of those mind numbing experiences because I know for a fact that I’m going to get a bite, if there is a fish in the vicinity. You also need to take caution of the fact that some heads and tail outs are quite shallow so you need to plan your approach and presentation. I’m refering to your casting presentation i.e. fly delivery but also your anchoring position if you’re fishing from a boat. When fishing from big boulders into a tailout, the latter is irrelevant, you can only fish upstream in most cases anyway. I love tailouts that shallows out to about 1m in depth and heads of about 2m that drops into 5m or deeper. When fishing a head be very stealthy with your anchor drop and movement on the boat. Remember, fish are making themselves vulnerable by moving out from the depths for a snack and making all sorts of noise won’t help you, especially if a 20lber fish is around. Flies that have been very succesful at these lies are your typical minnow / bugger patterns. My HUB fly (Hollow Uber Bugger) in black, natural or olive is my preferred fly for this lie. Fish these lies early mornings and late afternoons.
High banks with a vertical drop of atleast 1.5m in depth and connected to a deeper pool is where you can potentially hook into a beast fish. Chuck a log in the mix with some overhanging branches and you’re in the money, guranteed! What I’ve found over the years at these type of lies is that your fly plays a vital role in your success. I’m not saying a proper minnow imitation is wrong, I’m saying my Largie Toad fly for this situation is my preffered fly. It’s a non refusal fly for a bank or log, trust me! Fish these lies any time of day but preferably when the sun is high.
Reed edges are great lies for monster fish! But, and it’s a very big but, you need some flow, even if it’s just moving water & depth of atleast 1.5m. Shallower won’t help your cause at all! Then, your next consideration is season. I have yet to catch a fish at these lies during winter. Again, the Largie Toad is the best option here. Fish these lies from mid morning to mid afternoon.
Boulder lies and rock ledges are just awesome largie lies! Provided that you know where they are….some of them aren’t visible so get yourself a depth finder asap and reduce the guessing game. Depending on where they are, head, body or tail of pool, your approach might have to change as well as the time of day when you’ll be fishing them. If a ledge is situated at the body of the pool,(deepest) I prefer to fish perpendicular to the other side by anchoring in the shallow side and casting into the deep water. At one of these lies, Anthony Dessington, a client, hooked into a bus 24lber Largie on a black HUB fly. On another occasion Brett Blackbeard caught a 17.5lber on his very first cast of the day! A boulder at the head or tail of pool is a great lie regardless, fish it from all angles by starting from below, casting upstream into the current first. If there is a fish present, you’ll normally get him within 2 or 3 casts. The Largie Toad fly or HUB’S is my choice of fly here.
Current seams at the head of pool or body, are fantastic lies too! A seam is where slow or stagnent water joins with faster water. Lately, early mornings when I’m at the head of a pool, or slightly further down, I work the slow side first, casting either upstream or accross and down before moving closer to the faster section where the two join. I remember last year, 2016, I was guiding Martinus Pretorius at one of these lies, working the slow side of the seam first. After 3 fish in quick succession, I said to him we must move closer to the start of the head, where two different currents join, hopefully for a bigger fish. Within a few casts he was into a 22lber beast!
Tip: The 2m to 4m range in terms of depth seems to be the “golden” range if my fishing logs are to be believed.
#2 When to fish the “big fish” water
Time of day is very very important! Early mornings are great for head of pools and tail outs. Why? Because fish are there to feed. If they don’t feed venture deeper, to the body of the pool. Fish are always in a specific lie for a reason. Consult a moon phase calendar to obtain info for moon position. Then go to the best lie of any pool and work it hard! It is not uncommon to work a lie for two hours! Also, before winter and just after is big fish season!
#3 External factors (Moon position & moon phase, wind, barometric pressure, flow and water clarity)
I believe external factors set the mood for a 20lber largie and hence I monitor them closely on a daily basis. Moon position is critical in any moon phase. For this you need to consult a moon phase calendar or app and plan your fishing accordingly. You need to know exactly when it’s moon rise, overhead, set or underfoot. I believe fish are more active during these times and if you combine it with a specific phase, for example new or dark moon, you’re setting yourself up for huge success. Many people shy away from full moon, I on the other hand, love it! Yes full moon can bring unstable conditions but it can also bring you 7 fish in 2 hours, on 3 occasions if you want to knit pick.
I’m not a fan of wind, yes it stirs up the surface and helps with oxygen levels and yes, it hides your ugly boat from being spotted but I’ve found that it puts big fish down…..the American saying of wind from the west, fishing is best is a bogus! When the cows are grazing on the other hand, be on the water. If you see Goliath Herons, Monkey’s, Likkewaan, Fish Eagles, catch a wake up, a 20lber might be around and eating!
Barrometric pressure is a very important element. I have a weather station at home and when I have the opportunity, I plan my fishing according to the numbers. Fair weather fisherman galore!
Stable pressure is good for any fish, a rise in pressure is ideal but if you want the ultimate, be on the river during a stable medium or high pressure situation but with a storm approaching. The drop in preasure will cause a feeding frenzy of note! I vividly remember during the 2014 season I went out the one morning during a massive rise in pressure, blue skies but with lots of wind. The pressure rose from 1020mb at 7am to 1030mb by 12pm. I was sure I was going to catch some nice fish but alas, at 12pm I was back home and frustrated not knowing what the heck just happened. Not a bite, not a fish in sight. I decided to sit around and have some lunch. Soon after I got my keys and phone and drove to another venue. At around 2pm, after launching, I made my way upstream to a pool where I’ve caught some nice fish before, some 13lbers en 14lbers, nothing huge. The blue skies of the morning’s fishing have now disappeared and changed into something grey and dark. What the heck is this I asked myself! I realized that with this weather and the apparant storm approaching, I needed to make every cast count because time is running out. I dropped a Largie Toad against the bank at a lie I’ve never caught before, some 3m deep, remember a good lie is a good lie is a good lie and behold I got a take. Not a massive one, a small 5cm one…meaning my floating line moved litterally only 5cm. I struck and wham fish on. Soon after I landed a beautiful specimen of 21.5lbs. In the next 5 casts I landed two more fish before it completely died down.
Flow is as important as any other factor. Trophy 20lb largies are no different they want flow, they need flow! A golden rule I’ve learned from my mentor and mate Ian Couryer, is that a sudden increase in flow, will trigger big fish to come out of hiding and hunt. Now, if you haven’t caught fish before during one of these “event’s”, how on earth are you going to become a believer in the theory? Well in short, here is why….some years ago, back in 2014, I fished one of my favorite spots on the Vaalriver. The flow was at 30 cumex, up from 15 cumex two days prior and by doing simple things right, I was into a 22lber fishing a bank lie. The exact same flow scenario, weather conditions,etc repeated itself the following year, 2015. Being in a position to move when I had to, where do you think I was that day? Yes on the water fighting another 20lber. Early last year, 2016, same story, the level of the Vaalriver rose from 15cumex to 30cumex and I was on the water again! This time it was largie mayhem! 4 monster fish in two hours, 14lbs, 14.5lbs, 18lbs and one weighting 20lbs on the dot. Where do you think I’ll be when the level rise again? Being able to monitor the elements and knowing when to act is vital and a definite advantage if you stay close to the river.
Water clarity is important for me to the extend that the water isn’t polluted. Huh? Yes I don’t put much emphasis on vizibility, I’ve had my best season to date landing 71 fish with less than 20cm viz. But, if the fishing becomes slow all of a sudden and you read reports of sewerage spills, and you walk around with an itch, know that the honeymoon is over!
Each one of us have our own favorites that we tie or buy, it doesn’t matter but over time you’ll see which flies work better and in what scenario. At the end of the day it boils down to confidence in your fly. I have confidence in my creations because they’ve produced the goods over the years and hence why I still fish them today. Yes a few changes might occur, but the main design element remain. There is nothing wrong with attempting to create the next best thing, honestly, if that’s your mission great, but remember, re-inventing the wheel isn’t necessary, rather focus on your casting ability, learn more about their feeding behaviour and know what’s happening on the river bottom. Eliminate the guessing and you’ll be one step closer to your first 20lber largie on fly.
Tip: Small flies catch beast fish! 5cm to 7cm range is perfect. Incorporate sufficient weight into your patterns and use weedguards.
#5 The fish of a thousand casts
Put in the time my friend, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Walk the extra mile, it’s never crowded!