FLY FISHING IN THE JUNGLES OF AFRICA

FLY FISHING IN THE JUNGLES OF AFRICA

Like any good love affair, fly fishing for tarpon in the estuarine jungle forests of Gabon is meant to leave you at least a little broken; racked with boatloads of longing, lashings of self-doubt and maybe even a smidgen of regret. Chewed up and spat out by the Silver King, veteran saltie MC Coetzer reveals how at least he found succour and good company on a trip with African WatersPhotos by Mark Murray/African Waters.

Libreville

I love most African cities. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re in Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola or in Gabon, all African cities have that bustling, loud and often dirty vibe about them. But the people are always friendly and they seem genuinely happy as they go about their daily chores while dodging a million half-broken taxis. This day was different…

It was dawn in Libreville. One of those typical picture perfect African sunrises with a fresh smell in the air after an overnight thunderstorm. The last dawn that greeted me on the very same balcony was a time of serious anticipation. Today the scenery and chirping birds irritated the hell out of me. The rest of the guys were still asleep while I had that first cigarette of the day. It tasted good with a cup of strong condensed milk-sweetened coffee, but it did nothing to relieve the fishing equivalent of post-coital depression I was suffering from. The opening line from the movie, Apocalypse Now, came to mind – 

“Libreville….. Shit. I wish I was back in the jungle.” 

Okay, it doesn’t go quite like that, but looking out over Libreville after spending 10 days fishing in a remote jungle paradise I was depressed and generally not in a happy space. Wikipedia defines post-coital depression as “Post-coital tristesse (PCT) or post-coital dysphoria (PCD) as the feeling of sadness, anxiety, agitation or aggression after sexual intercourse. Its name comes from New Latin postcoitalis and French tristesse, literally ‘sadness’. The phenomenon is traced to the Greek doctor Galen (circa 130 to 210 AD), who wrote, “Every animal is sad after coitus except the human female and the rooster.” 

The former I get, but how the  hell he worked out rooster sexual satisfaction I don’t know. Regardless, I was experiencing the opposite; a massive come down from a torrid love affair that began ten days earlier.

Photos by Mark Murray/African Waters

Gabon

It’s impossible to convey to somebody what the jungles of Gabon are like, much less jungle fly fishing. I can tell you that they are endless and totally overpowering with almost no sign of human habitation. No matter how many hyperboles I use, most people will never know what it feels like to take a boat trip down a forest-fringed river in Gabon until you do it. It’s simply insane. It’s beautiful and intimidating at the same time. Even more importantly it’s like a long and winding watery rainbow with a pot of fishing gold at the end where the river meets the sea. 

Jannie Visser and I were headed down this black flowing rainbow and our destination was Sette Cama. We were to meet up with Conrad Botes and John Travis for ten days of pretty extreme fly fishing. The overriding theme when fishing Gabon, especially land based fishing, is that it’s a whole lot of hard work. And you can never compare it to fishing a venue like Seychelles or St Brandon’s. In Gabon the numbers of fish are low. You will spend a huge amount of energy for every bite that you get. This style of fishing appeals to me because it’s pretty much what we do back home in the estuaries of the Western Cape. The difference being that the jungle setting in Gabon is unique. You also have a very realistic chance of hooking and landing a giant of a fish.  

Here are some random thoughts on what we experienced:

Things that go bump in the night

Picture this. You’ve spent months planning for a trip, tying flies, rigging lines and generally prepping your arse off before spending two days on planes, taxis and boats to get to your destination. You are super stoked and nothing will keep you off the water after you’ve dumped your luggage. Sound familiar? Dream on. We arrived at the lodge at about lunchtime, only to be told that we would have to hang around the lodge until about ten that evening before we would be able to get any fishing done. Can you imagine travelling all the way to Gabon only to be told that you must hold your horses for the next ten hours before you can cast a line? Agony. We needed to go for some form of client emotional stability counselling. To be fair, the guys who were already there did fish more or less the same shift the previous evening and they reckoned that it would be worth the wait, so we spent the whole day rigging tackle, eating and drinking beers until the evening when we finally got on the boats to head on down the river.

That first night’s fishing was surreal! We travelled to the mouth of the river after dark and, with no moon, it was impossible to form even a vague idea of what our surroundings were. You knew there was a raging river in front of you but it was pitch black and you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. They may as well have blindfolded me, put me on a rugby field in Pofadder and told me to cast the 12-weight for the next five hours. If it wasn’t for the sound of water I would not have known the difference.

You very quickly get stuck in a rhythm of cast, slow retrieve, cast, slow retrieve, light a cigarette, cast, slow retrieve and then out of nowhere the line goes very tight, very fast and totally unexpectedly. You forget to set the hook as if it’s a tarpon, which it isn’t, and there is all-round pandemonium. The system is stacked with fish and you can constantly hear fish jumping out in the channel or mullet getting smashed right at your feet. Despite always feeling like something is about to destroy your fly, every pull comes out of nowhere and causes the same chaos on the bank.       

Black & purple

“If it ain’t chartreuse it ain’t no use”?

Yeah right. More like, “Once you’ve tried black you can’t go back.”  

Black and purple flies look seriously cool, especially big ones tied with natural materials. It’s just something about the colour combination that appeals to every saltwater fly tyer I know. The problem is that, despite having tied them for forever and a day, I’ve only ever caught the odd GT on black and purple flies. For instance, I’ve never caught a kob on one, while my natural mullet-type patterns do well enough in the Western Cape estuaries, even when fishing at night. Mullet don’t turn black when the sun sets, so why the hell should I change the colour of the flies that imitate them when the kob are smashing the naturals all around? I understand the whole silhouette thing, but dark flies have never made a noticeable difference for me.

Until Gabon.

Before the trip Conrad went on and on about black and purple flies but it’s impossible to tie only one style or colour of fly when you’re heading to a place like Gabon. Prepping for a trip simply doesn’t work that way, so we tied a whole range of flies and we fished all different colours like shades of orange and red, naturals, flies with loads of flash and even some chartreuse.  But as the trip progressed, it became clear that there was only one colour combination that appealed to every single fish in that system. Of course, it was black and purple. By the end of the first week each of us would have three rods rigged and every single rod would have some variant of a black and purple fly tied to the end. It simply wasn’t worth wasting time with other colours when you are only expecting three to four pulls a night. When you put in the amount of back-breaking work that Gabon demands, you have to be confident in what’s tied to the end of that 80lb leader.  By the end of the trip the only flies that inspired unwavering confidence were black and purple.

The daily bread

Days and nights quickly blur into this strange random combination of fishing in the dark, eating to keep going, drinking beers because that’s what you do in the tropics, sleeping whenever you can squeeze in a few hours and tying flies because you need more black and purple stuff. In Gabon fishing is centred around the tidal changes and primarily during night time. Some sessions start at a gentlemanly 17h00 and continue until the tide turns, but others would start at nine at night or four in the morning. Some morning sessions are spent chasing shoals of surface-busting Jacks in the estuary, but for the most part you end up with too many hours spent waiting at the lodge. This time is spent tying flies. The daily tying is a bit of a hand-to-mouth exercise and patterns are tweaked every afternoon and tied directly onto leaders for the evening session. 

Every fly tyer has a different approach to flies and fly tying. Conrad is a bit of a work horse type of tier who seems to focus on function rather than form. That’s a nice way of saying that some of his creations look like shit, but they really work. Jannie is like a slow surgeon. He spends hours tying a single fly and it seems as if the goal is to get every strand in exactly the right place. If thread won’t keep them in place he glues it into place with Pattex 100. John is in a league of his own. I’ve never come across anybody who ties with an obsession and genuine enjoyment like he does. Fly tying is pretty much a combination of technical tying skill, an understanding of the different materials, creativity and the ability to understand what the finished product will do in the water. John incorporates all of that into his tying and it was fascinating to watch him tie flies for tarpon in Gabon, but also to watch him demonstrate techniques used on flies for species like Northern Pike and Golden Dorado. One day soon, when he’s too old to cast a heavy rod, he ought to write a book on fly tying.

It hurts

Almost everybody gets the odd casting blister when you fish hard for a weekend at the start of the season.  But this was March, almost at the end of our local saltwater season, and by now my hands were pretty used to casting 10-weight rods for extended periods of time. In Gabon however, you quickly realise that a 10-weight won’t be able to handle the fish that cruise around the river mouth after dark and you are forced to fish the 12-weights. Flats fishing a 12-weight should never be confused with fishing one in Gabon where you would often fish it for four or five hours a day and a cast is made almost every minute. Maintenance of your casting hand and pacing yourself to ensure that you last the full ten days were things we often discussed before and during the trip, but at the end of the day you just keep going for as long as there’s water in front of you. Your physical condition slowly breaks down as the trip progresses and pretty soon lunchtime discussions revolve around what brand of tape is best to protect your hands or how can you stop the blisters from popping. 

By day three proper blisters were forming on my casting hand and my wrist seemed to have lost the ability to correct a badly timed cast. A casting glove and layers of thick tape protected the blisters from popping, but the pain soon progressed to a place where my entire casting hand hurt deep into the bone structure and I ended up using Voltaren Gel like hand cream between fishing sessions. For the record, Voltaren made absolutely no difference.

Fishing the 10-weight after the 12 feels like you’re holding a stream rod, and morning sessions spent chasing Jacks are like a beach holiday to a mine worker. You actually bluff yourself into believing that a mellow morning session will rejuvenate you for the coming evening session .  But when the sun sets and you pick up the 12-weight, it takes half an hour of casting to loosen up (or maybe numb) the casting muscles.

By the end of the trip there’s a lot of pain in the casting hand and every other muscle even remotely used while casting, but despite this you wish that the trip wasn’t coming to an end so soon. At least you have a set of proper trophy callouses to show for your efforts.

Tarpon

Veni, vidi, vici…… or not.

If it’s a fly-caught tarpon you want I would suggest that you spend your hard earned cash and head straight to Costa Rica. Do not pass Go. Do not collect grip and grin pictures from your guide.  

If, on the other hand, you’re more into a trip of a lifetime with a slight chance of hooking into and landing a giant tarpon off the beach after working your arse off in the dead of night, then I would say that Gabon is the perfect destination for you. 

This being their third trip to Sette Cama, John and Conrad are old hands, both in the literal sense and in the sense that they had a fairly good idea on how to deal with tarpon in Gabon. The advice was simple: fish your best gear, pre-set the drag as tight as humanly possible and set the hook on every pull that you get as if it’s a tarpon. Take no prisoners, hold on tight and definitely don’t cuddle up to these fish. That’s some solid advice, but by our second last session we’d only seen one tarpon all week and that was a fish another guest, Derek, jumped on the third night.

Now, we are fishing the north bank of the river with fish moving out of a small creek into the main river with the dropping tide. Just like every other evening we can hear the action pick up along with the speed of the current and the mullet are getting smashed out there in the darkness. When the take finally comes, old muscle memory kicks in – get a firm grip on the line, give a solid strip strike and hold on. Unfortunately I forget the golden rules and the fly comes back at me as the tarpon lands not even five metres away. That’s when the soul searching starts and later that night the moment is dissected, analysed and finally drowned in a lot of whiskey. To cut a long and sad story short, I managed to get three tarpon bites in those last sessions and failed miserably to convert even one of them past the point of attempting to set the hook. What a Bob Hope…   

On our final evening we got to see the power of these West African giants when Conrad hooked into what must have been a very big tarpon. I first became aware of the take when I heard the reel handle smash his knuckles and stripping basket. When I looked over I could just make out his silhouette and he was almost crouched over the reel to try and gain some control over proceedings. The speed with which that fish took off was something I have never seen before, but even with a drag set at eight kilos you could tell that this fish was unstoppable. Conrad and John disappeared down the beach to give chase but, unfortunately, even that tarpon was no match for the shark that found him after he had just stripped off five hundred metres of backing.   

Shortly after that Jannie and I got chased off the water by a hippo and we decided that it was time to head back to the lodge. As we finished the last of our Bellville Briefcase (papsak) and considered the orgy/love affair/psychological abuse of the past ten days’ fishing, the post-coital fishing depression was already beginning to set in.  

This story first appeared in The Mission issue 11. Read the whole thing below.

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