Conrad Botes battles chaos, fatigue and demons in his return to Gabon on a quest for the Silver King – tarpon. As featured in The Mission Issue 03.
I wake up some time on the morning of day three. Or maybe it’s day four, I can’t remember at this stage. I’m completely exhausted, stretched to the limit, yet I lie awake and try to guess the time. Eventually I look at my watch. 2:30am. It feels like forever before I’m sleeping again, but as soon as I nod off, the alarm goes. 4am. Time to get up.
It’s the routine that gets you. Up at 4am to get to the beach before dawn, then we fish the surf until 7am. From there we hit the lagoon to chase busting longfin jacks or work the mangrove edges to smash baby snapper on topwater flies before getting back to camp well before lunch. It’s a strange routine because you spend most of the afternoon hours in stasis, waiting to head out for the evening session in the surf. Initially, we spend the time around camp drinking beers and tying flies, but as the week unfolds, our presence on the stoep diminishes as most of us seek the solitude of our rooms and the prospect of rest.
We board the boats at 4pm and fish the evening session which will last as late as 11pm, depending on the action going down. We never arrive back at camp in time for a full night’s rest. Sometime around midnight, we crash and try to go to sleep, the next day’s 4am session creeping towards us.
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I make it to the lounge for a cup of coffee. It’s quiet around the breakfast table. The constant hours of blind casting 12-weights is taking its toll as we quietly get into the panga boats. There’s no jokes or horsing around this time of the day. I don’t remember much about the boat ride from the lodge to the lagoon mouth, perhaps I was sleeping. At the sand spit on the north bank we split up into a couple of smaller groups. The idea is to not crowd any particular spot with too many rods. Some guys head over to the south bank, others head way up the beach. North.
I find myself along with head guide Mark Murray in the surf on what I call Tarpon Alley. Tired arms and aching hands kick into motion as I start punching out casts into darkness. A blister on my rod hand has just popped and it’s sore and irritating. I know that the window for dawn tarpon has probably already closed, still I am hopeful. From last year’s stats I know that the tides were slowly starting to move against us and apart from John’s small tarpon on the first morning, catching now was unlikely. Still, hope flickers. Feverishly.
“The cause of the trouble: an elephant bull is standing a short distance away from me on the edge of the undergrowth”
It’s dark and stormy, pissing down, but still humid; the sand a light strip between the darkness of the rainforest and the frothing blackness of the Atlantic. As I walk up the beach looking for signs of poons in the pre-dawn light, I hear Mark holler from down the beach. I swing around to see a pack of marauding jacks destroying baitfish up the beach. They’re coming my way. Daybreak is only minutes away, and it’s golden hour in Gabon. I make an adequate cast and watch the pack overtake my fly. No retrieve needed, the fly gets smashed as they eviscerate baitfish in front of me.
But the hook up is an on–off and I’m left baffled as the school shoots past me, hauling ass up the shore break. I throw a “fuck you” cast in the direction of the disappearing pack and, “Hey! Lucky lucky!” I go tight straight into a feisty jack. Mark, who has been watching this little performance with an expression of mild amusement, jumps into action and starts running up the beach towards me to take a photo.
“Old orange beady eyes eventually takes refuge in the cover of forest undergrowth leaving us to flop around the beach with our rare and ruthless tropical fever. Tarpon fever.”
Halfway through covering the 150 odd metres he stops dead in his tracks… Frozen, his tilts his head slightly towards the east. The cause of the trouble: an elephant bull is standing a short distance away from me on the edge of the undergrowth. In an upwind position and in semi-darkness, he was as unaware of our presence as we were of him. After a fake charge towards Mark, the two spend some quality time exchanging scary looks in a staring competition. Mark wins and old orange beady eyes eventually takes refuge in the cover of forest undergrowth leaving us to flop around the beach with our rare and ruthless tropical fever. Tarpon fever.
At daybreak, I sit down on the beach next to Mark and take a moment to drink in where I am and the ominous beauty around us. From the elephant to the storm, to the fish and the darkness, it’s unpredictable. Anything can happen at any given moment. Gabon is nature in its rawest and purest form; it’s not the kind of place you figure out. It’s only my second time here, but I know my attraction to it and my obsession with the tarpon that haunts these waters (and my thoughts) is incurable. After catching one on fly, on foot, from the beach a year ago – as if a parasitic puppetmaster’s been pulling the strings I’ve had to get back here to do battle with these magnificent creatures once more. But out here in this universe there is no regard for human agenda. The Silver King is not ours to command.
Hell Broke Luce
The next night, as I sit down with a cold beer just before midnight, Tom Waits’ song “Hell Broke Luce” from his album Bad as Me comes to mind. I feel like Luce. I’m fucking broken after this evening.
It started like most others. There were six of us on the south bank all hoping to score big cubera snapper like Grant Dunbar and John Travis had the night before. So, I was duly fishing my cubera and threadfin gear; heavy sinking lines with big SpongeBob sliders on my 12-weight. Eventually, after trying the surf for a while and catching a Senegalese kob, I took a stroll down the bank towards where our boat was. I heard what sounded like big cubera smashing mullet close to the boat so thought I might as well make a couple of casts. I stripped off line and started fishing. It was just after spring high and the tide was dropping hard. I’d cast up-current, wait for it to sink and slowly strip it back on the swing. There were more cubera smashes. My heart rate picked up. Then some bigger splashes that were not cubera.
“Looking back, I remember now feeling afraid of what was to happen next”
Like witnessing an avalanche happening in slow motion, all hell broke loose in front of me. As the noise of smashes, fish jumping and mullet being terminated came roaring towards me, my SpongeBob got hit about 10 metres from the bank. Like fucking hard! Line cleared in seconds and I started sprinting towards the spit as backing started peeling off at an incredible rate. I ran into Mark and Mike Gradidge as they came running towards the boat. With Mark next to me, we tried to put the brakes on as I was rapidly running out of bank space.
Mark’s verdict? “Tarpon! Big fucking tarpon!”
It didn’t stop or slow down, regardless of how tight I kept cranking the drag. Looking back, I remember now feeling afraid of what was to happen next. With no real estate left, I was hanging like a fink at the edge of the spit, Mark grabbing hold of me by the strap of my stripping basket, trying to prevent me from going over the drop-off into the surf. I looked at the reel in utter disbelief as the backing came twanging off the spool of the now smoking Shilton reel; the fish was actually picking up speed. “I’m being spooled!” I looked at Mark in panic.
Read the rest of Conrad Botes’s fishing in Gabon story for free in The Mission Issue 03 below, or buy the print edition online (we ship worldwide).