Guide, guru, mystic dream weaver and fly fishing pioneer – Arno Matthee is exploring the final frontier. By Tudor Caradoc-Davies, featured in The Mission Fly Mag Issue 03.
I came across a great new word the other day – psychopomp. Relax, it’s not what you think. Steve Hofmeyr is not involved. In ancient Greek it meant “guide of the souls” and was used to describe those gods, demigods, spirits, angels, sprites and in-between beings who ushered souls from one world to the next. Perhaps the most famous example of a psychopomp is Charon, the undead ferryman who poles the dead across the River Styx to the afterlife. Slap a pair of Maui Jims and a Patagonia shirt on Charon, give him a sense of humour and a more modern skiff with a decent engine – do you not have the original flats guide?
After spending some time interviewing Arno Matthee I’m convinced the man is a psychopomp living among us, a Charon for our age, charting a course across the Congo River, taking guests from one world – the world of traffic, Facebook likes, populist politics and the Kardashians – to another world – the natural world, where everything is older, better connected and if you take the time to open your eyes, it all makes more sense.
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We live in the age of hyperbole. If you survive a near-death experience you’re a hero. If you have a few thousand Instagram followers you qualify as a celebrity. So let me be clear, Arno is not a Greek demi-god, but he is most definitely a pioneer. Species, destinations, techniques, flies – few have contributed as much as he has. To cover it all is impossible in a magazine article so we will take as our guide the book he is working on: Life Through a Polarized Lense, a two-part biography. The first bit covers his initial experiences in the Seychelles. The second part is focused on West Africa. We’ll squeeze in a brief Joburg-based interlude for good measure.
Think of it as the Arno Matthee coat of arms. In the centre: Africa. On the eastern side, over where the Seychelles would be and up towards the Horn is a milkfish, its torpedo body leading to the agape, perpetually surprised mouth. Balancing it out in a similar pose on the west coast is a tarpon, gills rattling as it jumps along the coastline of Gabon, the Congo and Angola. At the bottom is a laurel of yellowfish; both largemouth and smallmouth. Across the middle lie two crossed rods (12-weights).
Got it? Good. Here we go.
The Milkman Cometh
We begin on the east coast of Africa in the remote Indian Ocean. It’s 1998 and Arno has just arrived at Alphonse Island in the Seychelles from South Africa. It’s not the Alphonse of today with luxury chalets and a well-stocked bar, but Alphonse version 1.0. Just six months earlier Arno had been standing in Mark Yelland’s fly shop in Johannesburg when a call came in. A Frenchman, Chris Ponçon, was looking for guides for his new Seychelles operation. Mark volunteered Arno, his Vaal yellowfish china who, at the age of 26, had just retired from the stress and trauma of being a riot policeman in Alexandra township. He’d enlisted age 19 for national service and was subsequently transferred to the police, but he knew he had to get out.
Arno says, “It was crazy, the riots and everything, and I was done with national service and doing that as a job. I decided I had to get out of that life.”
So, Arno struck the jackpot, swopping hell for heaven on earth. Thing is, out there, back then, he was a noob. His fly fishing skills were largely from freshwater, having spent every spare moment on the Vaal targeting yellowfish. Save for the odd magazine article he got his hands on, gleaning information on flats fishing was hard. Many of the go-to flats flies we don’t leave home without were yet to be invented. He didn’t know it yet, but Arno was going to have to come up with a few himself. In addition, several of the species we now take for granted were not regular targets. One in particular caught his eye.
“Just seeing a milkfish for the first time, that was me, done. I wanted to catch one of those things on a fly rod.”
“We started from scratch. I tied a lot of flies before I left for Alphonse. Got hold of anybody I could at that stage to give me ideas. Basically crazy charlies for bonefish, merkins for permit, Lefty’s deceivers for GTs. I still tied them wrong until I read Lefty Kreh’s book Fly Fishing in Salt Water on how to tie them properly. That book and the few magazines we got our hands on, those were our only frames of reference. I had also seen a video by a guy called Rod Cross of how they had gone to St François Atoll in the old days and foul-hooked milkfish on bloodworm patterns. Just seeing a milkfish for the first time, that was me, done. I wanted to catch one of those things on a fly rod.”
Initially, his run of luck held. While fishing with fellow guide Wayne Haselau for bonefish with a small chartreuse and white clouser, skipping the little fly along the bottom through a strong current, a school of milkies came through and a small one of around 10 pounds just picked the fly up off the bottom.
“I screamed at Wayne, ‘I got a chanos!’ As I fought it for 20 minutes I was so happy thinking to myself, ‘Well, this is easy, I’ve got it waxed.’”
It took a year for Arno to catch his second one. In that time he and Wayne obsessed over developing an effective milkfish fly. From making flies with epoxy and sand to tying in little hackles, experimenting with foam, they tried any material they could get their hands on. Nothing worked.
Read the rest of Arno Matthee profile for free in The Mission Fly Mag Issue 03 below, or buy the print edition online (we ship worldwide).