Text and photos by Leonard Flemming
Our coastline was formed in the latest era of geologic time, the Cainozoic (derived from Greek, meaning “new life”), which spanned over the last 65.5 million years. During this period, modern continents were formed and saltwater bays resulted from fluctuating sea levels and the erratic topography of the earth’s shifting crust. Langebaan has no freshwater inflow and drains into the largest pocket-type bay along the semi-arid West Coast of South Africa named Saldanha Bay.
Better known for its crayfish (aka, West Coast rock lobster) and snoek, the West Coast is washed by the cold Benguela Current and although the coast seems dead beyond the smell of bokkoms and the quarrel of locals screaming “jou ma se…” over weekends, it’s a rich environment home to many crustaceans, invertebrates and fishes, including the cartilaginous guitarfish.
Belonging to the class Chondrichthyes (which literally means “cartilage fish”) the guitarfish or sand shark (common name) is closely related to skates and rays and like its relatives, thrives in the shallow, warmer parts of our shores. The water temperature in Langebaan is always slightly higher than the surrounding sea and the combination of this and shallow flats draw many juvenile fish, small bottom dwelling fish species and crustaceans that are food for the guitarfish to the lagoon environment.
The abundance of prey and the peaceful, temperate waters of the lagoon have produced a population of guitars that make it almost impossible to wade the sandbanks without yelping and losing your balance on the “moving sand” that are feeding guitarfish.
A bottom feeder by nature, guitarfish hunt by gliding close to the sand and trap moving prey by covering it with the flat rostrum (nose) that extends into the pectoral fins. Guitarfish eat blind and the exact location of the prey is then tracked by sensing movement through the ampullae of Lorenzini arranged around the mouth parts. When the mouth reaches the morsel, a muscular suction finishes the performance.
Their feeding habits and mechanism of the strike are so intriguing that I have become addicted to fishing for these weird things. Correctly timing the strip of the fly, which quickly becomes invisible amid reflections and sand movement, to tickle a guitar underneath the rostrum at the exact moment the fish passes by is a most pleasing Sunday afternoon delight. A bite that feels like a bass at the end of your Texas rig rings the strike bell and a sharp lift sinks the stainless wire into soft, rubbery lips.
As docile as they seem whilst dining, the powerful kick of a guitar is sure to surprise you when the backing disappears into the turquoise distance. The first run may end fast when a toe trapped line tightens beyond the tippet strength, or your mates may be in for a heck of a show when they watch you eventually tail your catch!
When dead-low water allows for a cold one in the village bar over lunch, then you have timed it right. Now is the time to rest your eyes for the guitars have dug-in and are on siesta. If time allows and the wind permits, a quick afternoon cast is a nice send off and maybe ‘just one more’. It’s a kind of fishing I’ve returned to often and it stays challenging. That’s fishing, I say!