Part one of Conrad Botes’s three-part series on a pioneering expedition of fly fishing in Gabon with African Waters.
My obsession with fly fishing in Gabon started in 2010. I have just returned from two weeks fishing in Jardines De La Reina in Cuba. I was a newly addicted tarpon junkie. All I thought about was catching that next tarpon. Back home I started researching possible tarpon venues, preferably ones that would be cheaper than a return trip to Cuba. Mexico’s Yucatan topped the list, but the whole of Central America was under the radar.
“It’s not called Africa’s Eden for nothing.”
One day I was chatting to Paul Weingartz, whom I met on my trip to Cuba, about tarpon fishing and possible tarpon destinations. “Why don’t you consider Gabon? It’s not called Africa’s Eden for nothing. Along with Angola, it’s also the closest tarpon grounds to us.” Paul’s descriptions of hundreds of miles of pristine forest and untouched beaches really got me going. I did some more research and phoned a few people, including Ed Truter. Unfortunately the verdict wasn’t good; Gabon is not a shore-based fly fishing destination. And with that Gabon started to fade away from my fishing radar…
About four years ago I noticed African Waters’ activities at Sette Cama in Gabon. The images of the beaches, estuary and the fish blew my mind. First of all there was giant African threadfin, a magnificent looking animal with a prehistoric disposition and a prop the likes of which I have never seen. Want!!! Then there was the bad-ass, mean-mouthed Gabonese pitbull, the cubera snapper. Man, those things look like they mean business! And then, of course, the tarpon. Big bloody tarpon. From the beach. Yes sir!
Fly fishing in Gabon – six years in the making
More enquiries were made, but the consensus was uniformly disappointing. Gabon is an art lure destination and not suited to fly fishing. As Rob Scott explains, everything depends on where the ocean dependent fish are holding at any particular time. Not enough fresh water in the mouth might mean that they are not entering the system, or holding 45 metres off the beach. It doesn’t matter how skilled a saltwater fly angler you are, it would just be impossible to get a fly in front of them. And add to the merry mix fishing that’s done on foot in the waves, mostly at night …
I was not deterred. Looking at the pics of guys casting lures in the surf, I made up my mind that I would one day want to go there and give it a bash. Even if this means that I met with failure, I was willing to go and cast a line into the legendary waters of Africa’s Eden.
Fast forward to March 2015. I’m fishing the Breede River estuary and have asked John Travis and Dave Moffett to join me. At some point John and I discovered that we have a mutual obsession with Gabon and decided right there and then that we want to make a trip happen. Shortly after we both contacted Rob Scott at African Waters, convinced him to put a fly-only trip together and we were on our way. What’s the worst that could happen? We go to a beautiful destination, blank and the folly would never be repeated.
Blind, pioneering enthusiasm
A date was decided upon, and the prep started. I could hardly wait and was somehow pissed off that we’d have to wait for a year before the trip would commence. But in retrospect the year was good, because many emails were exchanged between the growing number of compatriots deciding to go on the trip. Fly patterns, tackle tactics and the like were discussed at length.
But the negative verdicts came pouring in, warning us that it’s going to be a waste of good money. “You will catch jack shit” was the advice from a leading Durban tackle dealer to Arno van der Nest. I guess this made committing to this trip difficult for some, causing our little group to shrink before it grew stronger with the passage of time and the growing momentum of blind enthusiasm.
After months of fly prep and tackle talk, we were finally on our way. It was early March when I took a morning plane from Cape Town to Johannesburg International for my connecting flight to Libreville in Gabon. At Johannesburg I hooked up with John Travis, Garth Wellman and Arno van der Nest. The four of us would make up the Saffa contingent of the group, to be joined by Mike LaSota and Jeff Currier from North America. After a relatively short flight, we touched down in Libreville in the afternoon where we met Jeff and Mike. A connecting flight was boarded and 90 minutes later we touched down in Port Gentil. We would spend the night here and catch another flight to Gamba in the morning.
We enthusiastically collected our luggage and waited for a host from the camp to collect us and take us to our hotel. After an hour John made some calls and determined that this is not going to happen, so we lugged our shit out the little airport terminal, and yielded three dodgy-looking taxis that took us to the hotel. We’re getting closer to that beach. That was all I could think about.
At the hotel we sample the Gabonese beers that we’ll be drinking for the next week. Enthusiastic fly fishing stories and general banter follows until quite late. We are told a thing or two about tarpon fishing by our American compatriots, especially Mike, who has a lot of experience catching tarpon in the Florida Keys. The atmosphere is definitely picking up pace, the energy is tangible.
In the morning it’s a case of hurry up and wait. We get up at sparrows fart, only to get picked up two hours late by our bus that takes us to the airport. No reason given, as there is communication breakdown between our French speaking Gabonese friends and ourselves. Apparently the flight got delayed, but this we only hear when we arrive at Gamba just before lunch. At this point I can no longer contain my frustration of being held up and prevented to make a cast and put a fly in the water. But the wait continues …
We take a short drive through some fields and the village until we reach the waters edge where two boats from camp are waiting for us. As we load the gear into the boats, a sense of relief floods over me; the proximity of water.
When we reach camp Mark Murray, African Waters‘ head guide and our host for the week, greets us with cold beers. We are shown our rooms (I’m sharing with John, who’s also my boat partner for the week) and given a breakdown of how the fishing will happen for the week ahead. We will get up at 4am. Have coffee and a bite to eat and then hop into the pangas. A 25-minute ride will take us to the beach, which is 16km downriver if I remember correctly.
“When the sun gets too high, the action stops all together.”
The first session of the day will be from just after 5am until about 7:30am, when the action on the beach will be all but over. After that we will pair off and fish the estuary and river for jacks and snapper until just after 10am. When the sun gets too high, the action stops all together. Then it’s back to camp, chilling, eating lunch and a bit of sleep before we head out at 4pm for the afternoon and evening sessions which lasts till 10 or 11pm depending on the fishing.
Who needs sleep?
Who needs to sleep, I thought indignantly. What’s this siesta bullshit??? I couldn’t believe that we weren’t going fishing straight away, but there I sat waiting until 4pm. At least we had ample time to rig tackle, check leaders and so on. (Later in the week I realised that the midday breaks were absolute gold and most guys took the opportunity to catch some winks and rest a bit. Most of the fishing happens after dark, hours of non-stop surf casting 12-weights.)
On our way, a few stops were made to take pics of forest elephant. I quietly sat there cursing my companions for engaging in this trivial activity. Don’t they realise that they’re wasting valuable fishing time?
Eventually the boats pulled onto the sand spit at the river mouth and we all hopped out and took the 10-minute walk to the beach. I’m the first to get there. As I round the bend I see a beautiful current seam formed by the river water flowing into the surf. I park two of my three 12-weights on makeshift driftwood rod racks and start fishing. Garth arrives next and says, “I’m surprised you picked this spot. Mark says it’s the spot where most of the fish are caught.” “It just looked to good to walk past,” was my reply.
Soon we are all lined up and casting into promising looking water. Then all of a sudden the Senegalese long fin jacks arrived. First here and there, but later in full force. Packs of aggressive fish slicing through the surface crashing mullet and other baitfish. The packs were far off at first but moved in pretty close. But getting a cast in was difficult. Everyone was in casting-frenzy mode, and just as you would lay out a cast, say, to your left, the jacks would be busting up on your right.
We were all still finding our feet and the two Americans were battling since they decided to fish without stripping baskets and had lines washed around in the shorebreak. General havoc. Eventually we saw some activity among our compartriots to our far left; Arno van der Nest had hooked up and after a spirited fight landed the first fish of the trip. A beautiful Senegalese long-fin jack.
That night we didn’t stay up very late, some tired and jet-lagged travellers and we headed home after a very exiting, but mostly fishless session. Time to rethink and re-rig tackle. I wasn’t convinced that the correct choice for this scenario was our fast sinking lines.
Jumping tarpon, please
Back at camp, Eric, the French lodge owner, asked us how many tarpon we saw. Tarpon? I didn’t see any. Eric replied that he saw at least four rollers when he came down to the beach briefly. Not many, but at least they were there, he said. Wow, I would love to see a tarpon roll. Or even better, to see one jump. Just one tarpon jumped off the beach would make me happy.
After supper, Garth and Arno messed around with the 9-weights. Arno got a beautiful snapper and Garth a handful of skipjacks (elops) before they headed off to bed. But I was way to amped to go to bed. Images of marauding jacks were stuck on replay in my head and I couldn’t stop thinking of the possibility to get a tarpon to eat a fly off the beach. Just one fished jumped amongst our group… Eventually I also gave my 9-weight a couple of casts and managed my first two fish of the trip, a few minutes before midnight. A small, but hard-fighting cubera snapper and a west African grunter that both fell for a yellow clouser. Better get my ass in bed I thought, wake up call is at 4am.
Stay tuned for GABON 2016: Day One