When Peter Coetzee went to the Yemeni archipelago of Socotra, he had two weeks spent chasing giant trevally on the cards. Then the pandemic shut the world down. Stuck between a civil war in Yemen, pirates and terrorists in Somalia and the pallor of a new plague gripping the world, Pete and his fellow travellers found themselves in the shit.

 

I was deposited on the Eastern shores of Abd al Kuri by the SS Hell-on-Earth, by way of Turkey, Cairo, Habidoh and Qalansiya (Socotra’s two main ports). The previous evening’s entertainment had involved hanging on for dear life on a vessel with one motor, no life jackets or flares and a rudder steered by way of two rusted pulleys on either end of myself and Martin, one of the British anglers. He nervously filled the air with tobacco smoke, which, added to the smell of oil and sweet tea provided a hell of a cocktail.

I stared up at the underside of the platform that held Ray Montoya, my long-time fishing friend who lives in Oman and the other members of our party, convinced we’d lose a man overboard that night.  Before I lay down I made a go-bag that would double as my pillow. My emergency locator beacon, GPS, cell phone and camera were tied to my torso with paracord. The dhow surfed down the massive rolling swells in the blackness, and as it attempted to cavitate left at the base of each swell, the captain would jerk the wheel right. Those pulleys and ropes beside Martin and myself being the only thing stopping the boat from succeeding in its attempt to capsize at the bottom of each large swell.

I would drift off to sleep but wake to the sounds of panic and scuffling on deck above.  It took us 10 hours to put the massive seas behind us. As we entered the lee of Abd Al Kuri (the furthest islet of the Socotran Archipelago, closer to Somalia than it is the Arabian Peninsula), the swell abated. With the fear of losing a friend in the ocean half way between Socotra and this island now behind me, and I finally drifted off to sleep.

I woke to the sound of water hitting the hull over unpleasantly pitchy Arabic. Still wet from sea spray and smelling not to unlike the Socotran goat we’d brought along and tied to the deck, I stumbled to my feet, greeted by the sight of the commercial bay that was chosen to be our campsite. It looked like a depressing version of Mars, if Mars had beaches and litter and Chinese motorbikes and graveyards.  Why the Yemenis discard flesh on land when they’re on the coast remains a mystery to me.


After breakfast we climbed over the high gunnels of the panga-like boats and laced up for the morning’s fishing. The run was five minutes around the point of the bay to the second set of beaches, that, had it not been for a single rock pile, would be visible from camp.  Ray and I laughed at the logistics around what could have been a 10-minute walk, especially for two leather tramps, but we would learn in the coming days that every mile further away from camp was met with increasing resistance. We constantly had to fight against the boat operators, it was as if an elastic band was tied to home base. The resistance was of concern to me, as the outboards looked about as badly maintained as anything I’d seen in the 3rd world. And, although life jackets were missing (as usual), it was the absence of a tool, radio or piece of rope that worried me most.

Peter Coetzee with a great bluefin trevally in Socotra

Peter Coetzee with a great bluefin trevally on Abd al Kuri

We hit the beach on what would be our calmest day on Abd Al Kuri, and as we pushed the boat away I immediately noticed a shape materialize around the point, coming to inspect the commotion.  “Trevally!” I quickly managed to get a cast out behind us into the deep, the others having just waded out onto the sand. The fish, a great size bluefin, turned and ate immediately. I thought, ‘First cast and first fish before first land, we’re in for a treat here.’

Parrotfish feeding in the surf

Parrotfish feeding in the surf


The remainder of the day produced more bluefin and other odds and ends, but I focused on pushing further and further away, looking for the GTs I’d come this far to find. Parrotfish were abundant, mostly the same Dhofar/Swallowtail that haunted me on the Hallaniyat islands off Oman, but also a new species that was far prettier, with a far more impressive set of dentures. I did not pay them any attention, because I thought of every moment as a chance to find my quarry, the GTs.

With the second day came the winds out of the North, and we would be confined to the same stretches as the day before. It was an unpleasant thought for me, as I had not realized we were probably in the most productive part of the island, so I continued to push further and further away from camp.  Beach gave way to rocky overhangs not unlike what you’d see in photos of Sudan, and soon these viewpoints would give me my first glimpse of living Socotran GTs.  I gave myself a visual limit, which was a large rocky headland on the horizon.  A few hours later I would get to it, finding a lone GT hanging in the current a few fly line lengths away.  It was impossibly big, and while a teaser would have probably opened the possibility, it would have hollowed the victory.

It was however in the bay before the headland where one of the most remarkably powerful sights I’ve ever seen in shallow salt water materialized. I knew immediately that the massive black shapes I was seeing were too fast to be GTs. The porpoising of one of the lead fish answered the question.  It was a shoal of almost a hundred yellowfin tuna, in no less than 2m of water. The sand was churned up and the contrast in the milky water was phenomenal.  I could spot them from a serious distance, and, with a wade, they would be within range. I waded out deep and managed to present the fly, but my single shot was not seen. The shoal was gone. Being predominantly sand, the potential impact of landing a 40kg plus yellowfin tuna on a tropical beach on foot was not lost on me, and had me weak with adrenalin.

I had now spotted a few permit as well, but they moved incredibly unpredictably in the rough shore break that made landing a boat on any stretch of beach nearly impossible. We tried the next day. As we rounded the enormous current line, I looked back at one of the other Brits Niell and Johann the German and asked them if we should risk a long run. “What are you afraid of?” Johann remarked with a cheeky smile.  An hour later, I watched as the colour drained from the inexperienced seaman’s face.  Our skipper had not been taught to throttle down over a large crest, and in the 3m seas which were white horse after white horse, we went airborne over every crest, trying to not land on our rods as we came down each time. The skipper’s distrust in his equipment meant that he would hug every piece of land, putting us immediately in the largest and most dangerous surf zone.  We hit land, all of us ready to kiss the ground.  Johann and Niell stumbled away as I set off towards a vertical fissure of rock that protrudes like the spikes on Godzilla’s spine.

You will hear many stories of Socotra’s Djinns (demons or spirits), from men far too sensible to believe such things, but for some reason these mountains have you constantly checking your back.  It’s an unsettling feeling that Nicola the Italian had spoken of. Although it’s said the Djinns only haunt the herders, it would be a fear that Valerian, the geologist we met a few weeks later in our group, would confirm. I told myself to not be foolish or superstitious and switched focus to my footing on the loose shale and granite, looking for visual clues.

Every calm bay I rounded had the small rock sheds typical of the Socotri commercial fishermen, and, almost immediately thereafter, a graveyard of sharks, GTs and other fish, piles of discarded tackle, nets, Chinese Rapala rip offs and heavy wire traces. I would begin to develop a hypothesis as to why, “the GTs hadn’t arrived yet”, as our popping hosts had told us. The 50 strike a day norm seemed to be closer to 4 or 5 now on a good day. Like Oman, but without the safety. I wondered about Yemen’s civil war and its impact on an unmonitored fishery.

The previous day had produced a single GT shot, two fish sighted, but still no cigar. Calmer seas meant we could run far again and I continued my quest. The Godzilla hills from the day before hid behind them a phenomenal looking bay that had the makings of a predation site in the right conditions. I used the rocky point as a hide, and would, unusually, stay put and wait. Two large bluefin entered the bay and I stupidly had a shot. I immediately hooked up and the large fish rounded the point. In a move that would haunt me later, the fish pulled my fly line around the smooth rock of the point, but I assumed no damage was done and was happy to land it. An hour or so later I would get my GT shot, not at a large fish (sub 1 metre), but as it ate and shot immediately down below me, the fly line parted on the rock shelf.  On inspection, the bluefin had managed to damage almost the entire first 20 metres of the Leviathan floater. “Pete, you fool,” I castigated myself.

My hikes proved fruitless other than finding more parrotfish and snapper, and so I decided to do the same the next day, which presented only a single opportunity. It was a bigger GT that would come calling this time, but I would spot it too late in the gloomy conditions and it was out of reach before my fly line lay down on the water.  With pressure building, we would arrive back to concerning news that night.

When we arrived in Socotra, the pandemic had been gathering momentum worldwide, but air travel was still allowed and most of the world did not know what ‘lockdown’ meant. Now, all of a sudden, countries were closing their borders, airports and airlines were calling last orders and we were in the middle of the Guardafui Channel of the Arabian Sea with Somalia (pirates and Al Shabaab) to the South and Yemen and its civil war to the North). Nicola had made contact with Socotra via Sat phone and we were told the flight due to leave in a few days’ time would be moved forward. It would be the last flight for some time. After covering all of this distance and enduring everything we had, the next day would be our last day to fish.  No second week, no Socotra, just Abd Al Kuri. With reliable shots at GTs seeming increasingly unlikely, I would have to dedicate the last day to my beaked friends that I’d ignored thus far.

What parrotfish do to crab flies

What parrotfish do to crab flies

Parrotfish are ridiculous looking animals.  It’s like you gave a toddler a paw paw, and asked them to create a jungle fish with it.  You said jungle, so they put on a beak, and gave it a tail like a macaw.  The colours? Neon everything.

My first successful experience with these fish was in Oman, where Dhofar parrots are the dirty fighting reef eaters who immediately dive for the cartoon-like cheese holes in the Halliyanat shelves.  So, on hearing Ray’s strike rate in Abd Al Kuri I was immediately shocked.

“Four hooked and two landed!?”

Five lost parrots later, I was cursing my luck. It’s different to losing another fish in that you’re dealing with some strange elements. They are nitrous on the first run, often leader shy, and have, well, a beak for a mouth that can somehow chew up coral like it’s made of apples. Every lost fish induces some post blasphemy head-scratching.

For the rest of Pete’s story, check out issue 24 of The Mission below. As always, it’s free.