Tightlines - Fishing In Multispecies Dams - Rudolph Venter

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TEASER: ... is a bit like fishing in a lucky packet – you never know what fish are going to be present

Dr Gareth Coombs

Few public dams in South Africa only host one species of fish. Owing to personal preferences by landowners, accidental stockings, deliberate stocking and invasions, many waters end up containing several freshwater species. This is particularly common in dams near the edges of towns and cities. In waters where there were no fish naturally, the combination of species usually consists entirely of exotic species.

Small dams near the outskirts of towns are often stocked with several fish species. This dam contains bass, bluegill, carp and freshwater mullet.

A common problem or phenomenon in small dams is that one species tends to dominate and outcompete others. This is when you typically hear sayings such as “the dam has good carp”, or “there are other fish in the dam, but we mostly fish for bass”. This is often the case when the natural habitat and environmental conditions favour one species over the others or when species have not been introduced in sufficient numbers at the same time. The size of any fish population depends on the extent of favourable habitat available to species and how well they can compete for food and breeding areas against other fish.

One of the main considerations in multispecies waters is how well the fish co-exist together and whether each species’ niche is fulfilled. For instance, bass need relatively clear water with warm summer water temperatures. There also needs to be a food source of small fish, crabs and insects to sustain them. For this reason smaller dams are more likely to be dominated by one species of fish while larger waters will have different areas that are better for certain species than for others. Species that have very little niche-overlap naturally co-exist quite easily. Large dams and reservoirs will often have good populations of several species. For instance, Darlington Dam in the Addo National Park has very good populations of barbel, carp, smallmouth yellowfish and Mozambique tilapia. This is a large water and tilapia seem to hold their own well against carp and barbel there.

Being successful on multispecies dams requires that you become familiar with the different fish species present and, importantly, know where fish are likely to occur. This is where some local knowledge is crucial, and asking other anglers or tackle stores in the area will go a long way to ensuring some success.

If you are fishing the water for the first time, take some time out to walk around and explore the structure of the bankside. Look for signs of fish feeding, breeding or jumping. A pair of good Polaroid sunglasses is essential. If there are weedbeds and reed stands, look carefully along the verges to see if you can find any signs of carp that might be bumping into the reeds, or making the distinctive sucking sound when they feed on the surface.

It is always a good idea to keep a low profile along the water edge when you are doing this and wear drab clothing to avoid spooking any fish. Carp that occur in small, multispecies dams can often become huge. I have on occasion seen fish up to 15 kg slowly cruising below the surface in a corner of one my local dams and yet it is near impossible to catch any smaller fish in this dam. Try to establish a feeding spot in that area and if it is possible, return to it later to top up the feeding spot and get fish to become used to feeding there.

Large fish are very skittish and if you find some hefty fish hanging out in a specific area, you need to go about fishing for them very carefully. It always reminds me of those very true words by Flip Joubert: “Die allereerste punt wat die karp-hengelaar moet verstaan, is dat hy hier met die gevoeligste, wantrouigste en moeilikste vis te doen het.” (Joubert, F. 1970. Stywe Lyne. Afrikaans Persboekhandel, Johannesburg)

Predatory fish such as largemouth bass and barbel will invariably be associated with structure such as a large, overhanging trees, sunken tree branches, large rock boulders, etc. These places are always worth looking at and exploring with rod and line. For instance, if you know that there are some bass in a dam, then explore areas such as the corners of the dam, small heavily vegetated bays or other areas where an ambush predator such as bass will hold up.

If you are targeting bass specifically, using general search-pattern lures such as spinnerbaits is highly effective to get that first strike and increase your confidence. You will often be surprised at the size of some fish that hold in these areas.

Overhanging tree branches and submerged structures are excellent places when looking for fish in multispecies dams.

Barbel are one of the most common fish in some town dams and reservoirs and are often present with the mix of other species. Personally, I love them! Unlike bass, it is relatively easy to determine whether a dam has barbel present. When there are high numbers of them, it can be extremely easy as this is where their necessity for breathing air gives them away immediately; you will often see characteristic, noisy rises as the fish come up, gulp air and head back down. If you see these signs in an area, you have found good spot to try for Mr Whiskers. One word of caution, however: It is always best to look for these signs of barbel during spring and summer, as barbel very seldom come to the surface during winter.

Bream species such as tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus) are often easy to spot when they are breeding. The males change colour with their distinctive and beautiful display of a dark grey/black body, red fin tips and white stripes on the lower jaw. The white jaw is particularly bright and when your eyes focus on this, you sometimes wonder what fish is swimming around in front of you before you recognise the body outline.

Tilapia build nests during summer, which the male defends aggressively and because they patrol the area continuously, it is not difficult to find them. They will often use small bays or the verges of bankside vegetation to build these nests. Anglers should inspect such areas carefully for any dark fish shapes that are milling around.

Once again, Polaroid sunglasses are essential. Smaller bream species such as vleikurper form swarming shoals and are easy to spot around sunken tree structures or in rocky habitat.

Approaching multispecies dams can be extremely rewarding and exciting. It is a bit like fishing in a lucky packet – you never know what fish are going to be present, and visually searching for fish is one of the most exciting forms of fishing one can do. If you have some idea of the fish that are going to be present, prepare for the trip. It may be best to narrow down your target species to one or two options. If you are planning on bank angling, take a mixture of groundbaits consisting of standard maize, hemp, peas, soya and boilies. However, it is advisable to also take some natural baits such as earthworms and crickets that will catch a diversity of fish such as carp, tilapia and barbel if they are present in the area.

Signs of barbel gulping air on the surface is a sure giveaway that they are present.

Fish like carp and barbel will often feed in shallow areas of a dam. When walking along the edges, they are spooked easily and leave churned-up mud clouds as can be seen here.

Barbel do well in multispecies dams. The author took this 25 kg fish on a carp head in a small farm dam stocked with carp, barbel, eel and tilapia.