The one where Conrad Botes catches his first juvenile tarpon, with the African Waters’ Sette Cama crew in Gabon.
It often occurs to me that it’s the unexpected parts of a fly fishing trip that stay with me. Case in point is the trip we had to African Waters’ Sette Cama camp in Gabon earlier this year. I spend a lot of time thinking about this trip; hooking and losing big fish, having my ringpiece handed to me on a plate several times by big poons and the brutality of the fights. I frequently reminisce about cradling that big tarpon in the shallow surf that I caught on the last night.
Juvenile tarpon the ancient African jungle
But my favourite memory about this specific trip was the day mission we made into the jungle in search of small blind estuaries and unfished lagoons in search of baby tarpon.
By mid-week our group was a sorry-looking lot, having been punished severely by big tarpon on the evening sessions. Camp owner Eric decided to break the rules and do us the favour of an exploratory trip on quad bikes into the jungle in search of small jungle tarpon. I reckon he guessed that we were hard-up for some catching, not just fishing. We broke the routine of spending middays in camp, tying flies and drinking beers, and met on the beach after the morning session. Packing minimal gear, we hopped onto the back of quad bikes, two anglers and one guide per bike. It was spring low tide, which meant we could go onto the beach if the jungle became too inaccessible. It also meant that we couldn’t stay too long and had to be back before the tide started pushing again.
I think the trip to the fishing grounds was almost more magical than the eventual fishing. The forest in Gabon is truly awe-inspiring. The Afrikaans word for jungle is “oerwoud“. It’s one of those Afrikaans words that do not translate very well because it suggests more than the English translation. It’s not only jungle, but ancient jungle. And this was exactly how awestruck I was by the forests of Gabon. One gets the distinct sense of a place where man has not yet been to corrupt and contaminate. Majestic trees tower above the sand of the beach and many species of birds inhabit the canopy of this place. Buffaloes, crocodiles and hippos either walk the beaches or enter the surf to play.
“By ‘small’ I mean 80cm fish, something that most of my mates will give their left ball to catch on a regular basis at home.”
Eventually we came upon a small estuary that Eric knows well for our own idea of “play”. The idea was to fish the banks of the mouth, but due to the heavy rains of the previous days, the water was too high, making casting from the bank very limited. Luckily Eric had two plastic canoes stashed away in the forest nearby that we could use. But because the clock was ticking with the tide about to turn and forcing us to return, we each had about 40 minutes to fish with either Eric or Pascal. I was one of the first two to head up the tiny mangrove-lined creek. Initially I saw absolutely nothing, but when we paddled around the first bend, all of a sudden we started seeing small tarpon rolling.
By “small” I mean 80cm fish, something that most of my mates will give their left ball to catch on a regular basis at home.
As we paddled I saw a silver back break the surface next to the boat. I made an instinctive cast to cover the rolling fish with my 9-weight, but it didn’t eat. “Nice tarpon” I said to Eric who was paddling me around. “Not a tarpon, elops” was his reply. Ladyfish or springer. We came to rest in a little bay and I started laying out casts. I came tight into a feisty little poon. Three jumps later it threw the hook. I made another cast. Same story. Five minutes later I had to stop fishing because I was shaking too much, a complete fish-fever mess. “I’m shaking too much, I gotta take a break” I said to Eric. “Me too” Eric laughed. I looked around to see him struggling to light a cigarette with shaking hands.
“After all these years fishing for them, even the small ones will get my adrenalin rushing.”
After a few minutes we had to head back to get the others to fish as well. But I was super-stoked because in that brief window I had jumped numerous fish, got popped off once and managed to land my first juvenile tarpon in Africa.
Life was good.