REVIEW : done by the Bass Angler.
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The construction of the Tzaneen Dam in the early 1970’s provided not only a massive boost for the region’s economy, but also became a focal point of attention for the local community, not least for the local angling club.
Regarded as one of South Africa’s most beautiful dams its major feeder is the Great Letaba River that rises in the Drakensberg Escarpment;
it is also fed by four other minor rivers, namely the Broederstroom, Politsi, Debengeni and Thabina rivers.
Built as it is in a super fertile valley with a sub tropical climate, the dam now covers large orchards of citrus, mangoes, litchis and pawpaw as well as pine and bluegum plantations – submerged vegetation that provides excellent breeding grounds for a variety of fish species including Largemouth Black bass, Blue Kurper, Sharptooth Catfish and Carp, among other minor prey species, but is also a source of frustration for both bank and boat anglers.
Just before it was completed in 1977 the local newspaper ran a competition with the local Rotary club in which readers had to guess the date on which the dam would overflow. So quickly did it fill however that it overflowed before the competition tickets could be printed!
Local bass anglers quickly discovered - and enjoyed - boom conditions as the bass population exploded, providing excellent bassing, not only for boat anglers but also for those using fly tackle off the banks. Roads that had traversed the farms represented the only “clean” areas of the dam bed and South Africa’s “Mr Bass” of the 1980’s, Charles Norman, popularised the use of the Three-way rig on them, with several noatble catches particularly on the now submerged old Tzaneen-Duivelskloof road. Because all the submerged vegetation made casting highly hazardous with many lures and meters of line being lost, local anglers began to target the area directly beneath their boats using the Paternoster rig, which in later years was popularised as the “drop shot” technique.
The first bass angling money competition, the “Tzaneen Bass 500” was staged in 1984 and the dam’s popularity as a bass fishing venue increased with visitors from as far afield as Cape Town.
This popularity caught the local hospitality industry completely by surprise and overnight accommodation remained scarce until the establishment of a suitable caravan and camp ground on the “DeMarillac Peninsula” and the opening of several Bed & Bed and Guesthouse establishments.
The bass boom lasted well into the late 1980’s when the fabulous fishing enjoyed in its first years tapered off, with the reason being a decline in the available food supply. Several well motivated requests to stock the freshwater sardine, kapenta, were steadfastly refused by Transvaal Nature Conservation, and to this day remains a sticking point.
In the clear water of the dam bass fishing in became tough, although big bass were still being caught, but not near the numbers of before. A severe drought also severely affected the dam’s ability to support its fish populations, but over the past decade the bass population has once again increased considerably with the dam now once again being recognised as a premier bass fishery.
Specimens of three and four kilograms are not uncommon, and with the carp feeding on bass eggs and the kurper and catfish preying on bass fry the bass population has seemingly attained a mature status, with the threat of over population largely non-existent. With warm year-round temperatures and a long growth period many knowledgeable bass anglers reckon that Tzaneen Dam can produce a national record fish in the near future. In addition to the largemouth, catches of smallmouth have also been made, although this population is not considered as a major attraction.
Surrounded by farms and with considerably steep banks launching at Tzaneen Dam is limited to the Nature Reserve and the popular tournament host venue, the municipal Jetty 3 slipway. There is a clear advantage to launching at the municipal slipway - not only in terms of cost (a mere R42 for two anglers per day) but the concrete launch ramp can support the simultaneous launch of three boats side by side and extends more than 100m into the dam. It provides a solid launch platform even when the dam level subsides.
Tzaneen Dam has developed a reputation across the country for being one of the north’s premier fisheries with anglers from as the far as the Western Cape travelling to fish its waters annually. Since hosting the Tzaneen Bass 500 it has been the venue for many tournaments and has become a dam of legend in bassing circles.
From the outset the dam may appear like any other textbook bass dam with scattered rocky banks, flooded timber and the odd pieces of shoreline cover, but it has one major difference to other bass dams in that it is one of the few Northern dams which experiences a severe winter draw down. Built as a supply dam for the greater Tzaneen municipality, it also supplies water to the surrounding farms both around the dam and below. The dam level fluctuates vastly as farmers draw off irrigation water during the height of the agricultural season, particularly when the citrus season comes into full bloom. There is a massive demand on it and the Great Letaba for irrigation, often dropping the dam by more than a meter a week during the dry months.
Although regarded as an irritation by anglers when the water fluctuates too quickly, it is in part why the dam has been so sustainable over the years. With dropping water levels during the winter months the banks are exposed which allows shoreline vegetation to replenish which in turn add much needed nutrients back into the water once the first rains arrive. During this period a plant that has become synonymous with the fishing at Tzaneen flourishes as well, namely the Mauritian Thorn. This fine brush grows sporadically, creating large banks of shoreline vegetation during summer - as the water rises and floods the bushes it creates the perfect nursery for baitfish and provides cover off the bank for the bass’ fry during the post spawn period. This process repeats itself on an almost yearly basis with the dam only having reached full capacity for the first time in more than ten years over the past seasons. The dropping water level also greatly affects water clarity and during sudden periods of receding water stains the upper reaches of the main basin.
What Tzaneen lacks in visible cover, other than isolated patched of reeds and standing timber, it makes up for in hard cover which abounds everywhere. When the dam was built many of the old citrus orchards, bluegum plantations and a few of the pine forests were flooded as waters rose quicker than the main basin could be cleared, leaving massive stump fields and complete forests submerged. Over the years however these have been partly felled by the locals for firewood, but what remains are some of the most textbook stump fields you could ask for, and with deep water access no further than 30m from the bank, even at fifty percent capacity these are good starting points when the water rises.
Beneath it waters Tzaneen also holds excellent rock features ranging from massive boulders to cliff faces - hotpots on the dam seem to be areas where cover converges with the rock, especially fine brush with large rocks in the vicinity.
As for the quality of the fishing anglers can expect to catch on average between 10 - 20 fish on a good day, with quality ranging up to 3,5 kg although larger specimens have been caught.
Tzaneen resident and SABAA Northern Division president Alan Kenney can attest to the quality of the fishery. Having been actively involved in the organisation of many tournaments over the years, including the Tzaneen Classic, he has kept meticulous records of tournament and his own catches. “As with all dams which have a seven year cycle the quality has steadily been returning and in the next few years Tzaneen is going to be back to the days of old,” he says, pointing out that “last year the average fish was weighing in at 650 grams but this year you’re catching fish just over 900 grams. ”
Indeed, gauging by the catches made during the recent Tzaneen “Dash for Cash” it is evident that the bass are well fed, with a wide range of prey species available. In mid summer it isn’t uncommon to spot large shoals of baitfish spanning the size of a small boat, and if you travel up into the tributaries various ghielemientjies and other minnows can be seen swarming the shallows, a good sign of a healthy fishery.
Big fish patterns at Tzaneen have always been dominated by crankbaits, white spinnerbaits and especially Zara Spooks which have claimed many a large fish.
With varying water clarity from one area of the dam to another, natural colour soft plastics are recommended, and with the growing population of carp green pumpkin baits have seen increased success, especially when tipped with chartreuse or orange dye. But with the sheer amount of rock and standing timber on offer creature baits, jigs and even large weightless senkos fished vertically will produce good results.
Tzaneen Dam is home to a good population of Hippos and Crocodiles. Although there have been no reported incidences the Hippos have been known to show aggression towards boats during the breeding season. It is imperative to give these animals a wide birth especially when travelling into the upper reaches of the tributaries.
Limpopo, Tzaneen. GPS: -23.7907658, 30.1611557