This is the second of three posts about Conrad Botes’s fly fishing trip to Gabon in 2016. The Great Switcheroo: fly fishing for tarpon that became a long-fin jack. Photographs by John Travis and Mark Murray/African Waters
By the time Mark Murray, Africa Waters’ head guide, came around to wake everyone up, John and I were already awake and packing flies, tackle, etc. Everybody met in the lounge area for coffee and something to eat. A few minutes later we loaded our tackle into the boats and we were off. After last night, I was very amped and could hardly wait to get there. Soon we pulled onto the sand spit at the mouth, which is on the southernmost border of the Loango National Park, with roughly 1 500 square kilometres of pristine African forest.
Fly fishing for tarpon
John and I made sure that we were ready at the jetty first, so we were also the first to touch down and make our way beachward. As I hurried along to the beach, with John’s ghostly figure walking in front of me, I kept glancing at the water. As I was doing this, I saw a dark shape appear very briefly in the water’s choppy surface. Tarpon? Surely not, that was ridiculously close. But a little further I saw it again. It must be tarpon … Could just be my imagination and the pre-dawn low light playing tricks on me.
I picked one of my outfits with a heavy sinking line and started casting, with John fishing to my right. Then I saw another shape in the waves in front of me, this time I convinced myself that it must have been a tarpon rolling and started casting with earnest. Then, as the light intensified, I saw another, this time clearly. The adrenaline started pumping. Then another and another. Suddenly it struck me like a thunderbolt; I’m looking at a massive pod of giant tarpon rolling in the river water where it flowed into the surf. As the light grew, we were all lined up and casting into the surf with weak knees, frothing at he mouth.
And then. Very silently John Travis went tight on the first tarpon of the trip. I only noticed the commotion when Mark and Jeff ran over while John was pulling it onto the sand.
Although I was tempted to run over and check it out, I wisely stayed planted in the surf and kept casting. The action reached fever pitch now with the odd bait-ball being smashed by pods of lazily rolling poons with some frenetic jack action in the mix.
I looked over at Garth and Arno, they all seemed to have the same feeble smiles of utter disbelief on their faces as myself. At this point, Mark was standing behind me, to my left. Then we both witnessed the same thing. It all happened in a flash, but it felt like time slowed down and happening in slow motion. Just as I put out a good cast, a small pod of poons started rolling on mullet. They seemed to form a semi-circle and chased the bait to a central spot. And my fly landed on this spot seconds before. I stopped breathing and stripped slowly. One, two, I’m on.
At first I don’t know what’s happening, big fish or small. I just hold on and hope that the fish will set, but before I can gather my shit all hell breaks loose. Massive strong run and then it’s out the water, jumping far out in the surf and crashing back in the water, several times. I don’t recall a lot apart from pulling as hard as I could. And walking towards my right, down the beach. At one point I can feel the fish swimming towards me and I run backwards, but immediately it’s pulling me back up the beach in the opposite direction. I’m heaving like a dying hog at this point but feeling I’ve got him beaten now.
Shortly I had it in the gutter just behind the shore break with some of the guides and Mark standing by, ready to take pics. I wait for a nice little wave and then heave it out of the dark tannin stained water and onto the beach. What I saw next, was difficult to comprehend. Flapping on the sand is not my tarpon, but a long-fin jack instead. WTF?! Mark was as puzzled as I, but offered an explanation. “The poon spat the hook. That’s when you backed up the beach and a jack must have eaten the fly straight away.”
As we were talking pics I could not believe my eyes and rotten luck. My poon gone, and not just any poon, a massive bloody poon! For a few seconds I hated that long-fin jack in my hands. But as I removed the yellow SpongeBob from its maws, I looked up, saw the sun come up, realized that I’m fishing on a pristine beach in Gabon. I picked up my spirits.
“The more cautious approach would be to go round the busting fish and slowly drift onto them. Not Pascal.”
At about 7am the action on the beach was all but over, with no other noteworthy catches. It was time to hit the estuary for some jack and snapper action. John and I got into our boat, being skippered by Pascal this morning. The lagoon was teeming with busting jacks and every boat found a secluded stretch and started fishing. The action was ridiculous and we were smashing the jacks straight off the bat. Pascal, who skippered us on our first morning only, handled his craft unlike any of the other skippers. As soon as he saw fish, he would chase them down an put us right on top the action. The more cautious approach would be to go round the busting fish and slowly drift onto them. Not Pascal. And this morning his bold approach paid off. John and I caught and missed jacks non-stop.
When we grew tired of this, it was time for snapper bashing in the mangrove roots. Cast popper into roots, strip-strip-strip BANG. If you didn’t get a bite after three or four casts it was time to recast. At about 10am the action was over. As soon as the sun gets too high, everyone seems to go to bed here. Since it was our first morning we asked Pascal to fish until 12 noon, but I think I only got one more snapper after 10.
On our way back to camp, we made a detour through some side channels, looking for some bigger “carpe rouge”, the local name for cubera snapper. While doing this we came across a troop of red-capped mangabey monkeys. We spend some time observing them at close range after Pascal poled the boat into the branches. John managed some excellent photos with his big camera.
Back at camp, everyone enjoyed some sleep after lunch. At 4pm we regrouped and headed down to the mouth for the evening session.
As expected, things were quiet until the sun started dipping towards the horizon, and magic hour commenced. Sure enough, the jacks appeared like clockwork with a few poons here and there. But not nearly as many as this morning. At sunset it was Garth’s turn to have his arms stretched as he tucked into a really good jack that gave him the runaround. I felt positive that I might get another jack, placing my line in the sweet spot on several occasions, but no joy. I was beginning to wonder if the sinker is perhaps the wrong choice for busting fish.
For the next couple of hours we were blind fishing hard. Mark ensured us that now is the best chance for threadfin. Right tide, hours of darkness and so on. At around 9pm most of us were finished. The skippers carried a cooler box to the beach and some of the guys were having beers in the moonlight. I was still fishing next to Travis. Jeff was casting away a little to our left. “Hey John, shall we call it a day and sit down with a cold one in the moonlight?”, I asked. “No fucking ways. Not with the North American team still in the game! We only leave once Jeff throws in the towel” came his reply.
When I later spoke to Jeff, he laughed and said that he was thinking exactly the same; “I can’t leave with the two Saffas still fishing. I’ll wait till they pack it in, before I call it a night”. So there we we’re; locked in piscatorial combat, casting our arms off.
Then, all of a sudden, commotion to our left. Jeff hooked up! As he came walking past I could see him straining as he fought a big fish. About twenty minutes later he had it on the beach with John and Mark taking pictures, and everyone looking on. I walked over to have a look; Jeff landed an awesome African threadfin! This was a species really high on everybody’s wishlist, an seeing one in the flesh really got the adrenaline going.
After the pics, while Jeff was celebrating his threadie with a cold beer, John and I kept fishing with renewed vigor. It wasn’t long before I got a bite just behind the shore break. Good fish, I thought as I saw it peel line off the locked drag of my Tibor Pacific. When I eventually landed the fish I was surprised by its size; I expected it to be much bigger. But I soon realized that “carpe rouge”, the cubera snapper, pack a mean bloody punch! After Mark took a few snaps, John and I kept fishing.
Happy with my catch, I though “Five more casts and I’m calling it a night”. Never got to five. Again the yellow SpongeBob got hammered just behind the shore break. Cubera number two for the evening, thank you very much. Some more pics and again “Five more casts…” You guessed it, a few cast later and the Tibor was moaning low as another cubera tore ass down the beach. At this point I’m finished and everybody ready to go home for a late supper.
Later, when we are sitting around the dining table at midnight and celebrating our first magnificent day, I wonder to myself; how much better can it get? My thoughts are downed by excited banter and animated stories of jacks smashing poppers. Soon we are wandering off to bed. It’s just before one am. Three hours sleep …
Stay tuned for:
Gabon 2016: Day Two