Geelbek on fly, at night. In the pursuit of impossible fish Jimmy Eagleton finds both solace and success while the rest of us are sleeping. Written by Tudor Caradoc-Davies and featured in The Mission Fly Mag Issue 02.
I’m 35, a relatively large, bearded, ex-rugby playing man, but I’m being pushed out towards this island in a float tube like a child with water wings. Jimmy Eagleton wades next to me following the sandbanks and channels he knows so well. The water threatens the top of his chest waders. For the last few metres he leans on the tube and kicks us over the deep water and onto the rocks. The temperature is cool not cold and the visibility chalkier than you’d expect at midnight. Still, if you get wet now, you’re wet for hours.
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The West Coast is normally metal but tonight is very different. Tonight it’s calm, Ozzy Osbourne removing face paint after the show. Gentle winds over sand, salt, desert and scrub – the shushed percussion and schmaltzy brass of slow jazz. The swell is almost non-existent.
“When they’re in the mood, at this time of the year the fish come up the channel surrounding the island and feed on the baitfish trying to catch a break at night.”
The island’s about the size of a tennis court, but, partitioned by small spits and rocky outcrops, I imagine it takes the shape of Cthulhu’s head complete with tentacle noodles. Without an overhead drone pic taken in daylight it’s difficult to tell. Large gannets and gulls panic as we clamber over the rocks, drag the float tube away from the water’s edge and rig up. Jimmy points out his favourite spot that he wants me to use, out over a submerged spit and onto some distant boulders. There’s a channel there and on either side of it the kelp beds beckon. When they’re in the mood, at this time of the year the fish come up the channel surrounding the island and feed on the baitfish trying to catch a break at night.
I’m used to fishing late into the dark or starting early in the dark. The former carries the hope of the eternal last cast. The latter, the hope that leaving bed will be worth it if the tug comes with the dawn. This is not like that. We met at Jimmy’s place on the outskirts of Cape Town, I ogled his array of incredible flies, we spoke about fish and tactics, drank coffee, said cheers to his wife and only left at 10pm. After driving up the coast through dead country towns and dark grasslands ruled by grass owls to Jimmy’s favourite spot, we started fishing at 12am. We will fish till 5am and head back in the dark.
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Jimmy is a climber on the rigs up off the Angolan coast. He does the work machines can’t do, working his way into hard to reach places to deconstruct and make sense of something the control room says is not working. He is huge, all muscle, built liked you’d expect he needs to be for his profession, but he’s both tall for a climber and even bigger because in the long hours on the rig when he is not working he klaps gym.
Tonight we’re here to klap kob and geelbek on fly, but mainly the geelbek because, well, they’re meant to be impossible. Geelbek (which is Afrikaans for “yellow mouth”) or Cape salmon (if you ever bought them at Woolies before they were red-listed) are mainly nocturnal. You’re not really meant to be able to catch them from the shore, let alone on fly. I’ve caught them once before in my teens from a canoe with handlines as huge runs of them swept along the Overberg coastline. Sitting deep in the kelp forests we knew to expect them when we saw the flash of wine bottles in the air coming from the commercial fishermen who used them as priests. This, the way we’re fishing from them, is very different by comparison.
“Geelbek on fly? At night? On the West Coast? That’s just nuts.”
Jimmy is single-minded in his fly-target obsessions. Western Cape saltwater fly fishing is hard enough as it is. Long hours, high winds, cold temperatures and dangerous surf. Fly fishing for kob is even harder as you’re always pushing the margins of light and sleep. Generally, always fishing below the surface (though surface-pattern success is growing rapidly) and waiting for that almighty tug. Geelbek on fly? At night? On the West Coast? That’s just nuts.
Or so we all thought, but about a year ago a few pics popped up on social media. They weren’t shared by Jimmy, because Jimmy does not do that sort of thing. But an eager friend shared them and they went around. “Viral”, if you like, in the infinitesimal niche of those fascinated by people who catch seemingly impossible fish. The photos feature Jimmy with two geelbek, caught on fly at night. Not only that, but he released them too. Like most fly anglers Jimmy does not like to kill fish. All we have are a couple of fish selfies, in half of them Jimmy’s head is cut off, but the geelbek is unmistakable. Cult status achieved. Next level unlocked.
Read the rest of “The Island” for free below in The Mission Fly Mag Issue 02; or buy the print edition online (we ship worldwide).