How to identify yellowfish?

If you’re like us you have at some point caught a yellowfish and wondered which of the 7 different species it is. Not to mention the 3 similar species that add to the confusion. Searching online helped a lot but the info can be overwhelming and confusing sometimes.

On this post we will attempt to simplify identification of yellowfish in South Africa by aggregating all the info we could find into one easy guide.

Background info

1. Yellowfish species that occur in South Africa
2. Similar species that occur in South Africa
3. Map of yellowfish distribution in South Africa

Identification

1. Where was it caught?
2. What’s the difference between a smallmouth and a largemouth yellowfish?
3. What’s the difference between a smallscale and a largescale yellowfish?
4. Other?

References \ further reading

Background info

Let’s start with a very brief overview of all yellowfish which roam South African waters.

1. yellowfish species that occur in South Africa

There are only 7 true yellowfish (Labeobarbus) that occur in South Africa. Here they are sorted by most commonly fished:

Name Other Name\s Location Max Size \ Length SA record  Photos
Smallmouth Yellowfish
(Labeobarbus aeneus)
  Orange\Vaal River system (including Sterkfontein Dam), Gouritz (WC), 
Kei (EC), Great Fish (EC), Limpopo (LP), Pongola (MP) Rivers
7kg \ 50cm 7.8kg
Largemouth Yellowfish
(Labeobarbus kimberleyensis)
  Orange\Vaal River system (including Sterkfontein Dam) 22kg \ 100cm 9.5kg
Bushveld Smallscale Yellowfish
(Labeobarbus polylepis)
  Limpopo, Elands, Crocodile, Komati, Pongola Rivers, basically north and east of South Africa 6.8kg \ 46cm 6.1kg
Lowveld Largescale Yellowfish
(Labeobarbus marequensis)
  Limpopo, Elands, Crocodile, Komati, Pongola Rivers, basically north and east of South Africa 6kg \ 47cm 5.7kg
Kwazulu-Natal Yellowfish
(Labeobarbus natalensis)
 Scaly Yellowfish Throughout KZN from the Mkuze River in
the north to the Mtamvuna River in the south
4kg \ 70cm 4.6kg
Clanwilliam Yellowfish
(Labeobarbus capensis)
  Olifants\Doring River system (WC) 10.6kg \ 98cm 5.6kg
Incomati Chiselmouth
(Labeobarbus nelspruitensis) (since 2015)
Horingbek Komati, Pongola, Sabie River systems (MP)    


 

2. Similar species that occur in South Africa

Another 3 species are related and similar to yellowfish but not classified as such:

Name Other Name\s Location Max Size \ Length SA record  Photos
Berg\Breede River Whitefish
(Barbus andrewi)
 Witvis Berg\Breede River system (WC) 7kg \ 80cm 3.4kg
Bushveld Papermouth
(Barbus rapax)
  Limpopo, Elands, Crocodile, Komati, Pongola
Rivers, basically north and east of South Africa
1.3kg \ 20cm 1.3kg
Clanwilliam Sawfin
(Barbus serra)
  Olifants\Doring River system (WC) 3kg \ 60cm 3kg


 

3. Map of yellowfish distribution in south africa

We found this fantastic map on the Federation of South African Flyfishers site and it clearly illustrates where all the different yellowfish can be found.

distribution of yellowfish in South Africa
Distribution of yellowfish in South Africa

 

Identification

Ok fine, but how do I identify my yellowfish? Well after spending some time trawling through forums etc. we found by asking the following questions we can easily distinguish between the different types of yellowfish.

 

1. Where was it caught?

Just looking at the table and map above it’s clear that we can discard quite a few species by just determining where it was caught.

So here goes:

Where was it caught? Possible type of yellowfish
Vaal, Orange Rivers can almost only be a Smallmouth or Largemouth
Limpopo, Pongola, Sabie, Komati etc. Rivers (northeast of SA) almost certainly a Bushveld Smallscale or Lowveld Largescale, but can also be a Smallmouth, a Papermouth or even an Incomati Chiselmouth
Smaller rivers in KZN flowing to the Indian ocean can only be a  Kwazulu-Natal Yellowfish
Kei, Gouritz, Great Fish Rivers can only be a Smallmouth 
Berg, Breede Rivers in WC
definitely a WhiteFish
Olifants, Doring Rivers in WC either a Clanwilliam Yellowfish or Sawfin


Ok, with that out the way let’s differentiate between yellowfish that occur in certain bodies of water together.
 

2. What’s the difference between a smallmouth and a largemouth yellowfish?

We’ve found there are two main ways of differentiating between these two common yellowfish:

a. Location of the eyes

Basically turn your yellowfish on it’s back, and then try to see it’s eyes from the bottom. If you can see it’s eyes protruding on the sides of it’s head then it’s a smallmouth. If you can’t see the eyes it’s probably a largemouth.

This is because the smallmouth yellowfish is predominantly a bottom feeder and needs to see food below it. Conversely the largemouth is predominantly a hunter and generally looks upwards to spot prey.

b. Shape of mouth

Gently press the bottom lip of the yellowfish down. If the mouth opens downwards it’s a smallmouth. And if it’s mouth opens mostly forwards it’s a largemouth.

This is because of the same reasons as above.

c. Still can’t determine the type of yellowfish?

Finally have a look the following detailed graphic. We found it lying around in a forum and took the liberty of enhancing it to be more readable. This will surely settle any further debate 🙂

largemouth vs smallmouth yellowfish
Largemouth vs Smallmouth yellowfish


 

3. What’s the difference between a smallscale and a largescale yellowfish?

This one’s a bit easier and it’s all around counting the amount of scales they have (obviously) and some other characteristics.

a. Lateral line scale count

Largescale yellowfish generally have around 27-33 scales in the lateral line. Whereas smallscales have around 36-44 scales in the lateral line.

b. Uppermost scale count

You can also count the amount of scales from the head to the dorsal fin (uppermost scales). The largescale has around 8-9 scales. And the smallscale more than 10.

c. Fin colour

The largescale normally has bright orange fins, whereas smallscale has a blueish tinge to it’s fins.

d. Body shape

Largescales are normally bulkier than smallscale who has a more streamlined body. 

NOTE: please try not to keep the fish too long out of water while counting scales, rather take a photo and do the counting later

 

4. Other?

For other types of yellowfish that inhabit the same bodies of water we couldn’t find any resources. Like for example the difference between smallmouth yellowfish, papermouth and smallscale. Also what are the differences between the Clanwilliam yellowfish and sawfin?

We’ll continue looking for any info regarding those questions, and we’ll be adding many more photos of these fish to simplify identification…

But in the meantime if you have anything to add to our research that would be great. Please comment below or send us an email if you find any errors or have any further useful info we could use.


 

References \ further reading

Special thanks must go out to these sites\organisations which we gathered all our info from. They have put in a lot of effort to compile comprehensive detail of each type of yellowfish. Click on their links below to find out more about this fascinating fish.

Federation of South African Flyfishers
FishBase
FishTheFly
yellowfish.co.za

 

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