I’ve always been intrigued by the saltwater fly fishing concept, trying to catch what I grew up with as ‘rock-and-surf’ quarries on floppy fly rods and ‘feathers’ tied to hooks. “No man, seriously, how can a reef fish eat feathers?” is what I used to think. I tried it once and caught juvenile elf and garrick on bucktail creations from the Stilbaai harbour wall during a summer surf trip. I was hooked.

That was a long time ago and although it was an emotional journey working through many mombakkie trips, rusted gear and flies that failed to catch fish, the more I ventured into the wave zone of our coast the more I enjoyed getting washed around. What intrigued me most was the success that Conrad Botes, Jannie Visser and MC Coetzer had targeting kob on fly. This was a mystery fish to me (and still is for that matter) as even though my father and I spent long, slow nights targeting them on bait in Kleinmond and Betties Bay we never caught one; so the thought of casting a fly into the surf to catch a kob seemed like an extremely unlikely way to catch these fish. I was blown away by especially Conrad’s string of regular catches.

I chatted to them about kob, grunter, blacktail and other fishes and tried hard to get these species with their advice on ‘how’. I noticed that spending time wading through shore wash slowly became a heavy addiction, regardless of success. However, I cannot deny that I also learnt a hell of a lot by just spending time in the water.

These are some of the things that I learnt:

There are many ways to skin a cat…

Saltwater fish are not overly fussy and you can tell by looking at the different ways of several successful saltwater fishermen targeting the same fish species. Someone like Conrad Botes will swear by a neutrally buoyant Sponge Bob fly or a floating fly for kob fished near or on the surface, while Jimmy Eagleton believes in his DMA pattern fished along the bottom. Also like Conrad and Jimmy, I’ve tried both methods (neutral buoyant baitfish flies and the DMA) in the same fisheries and caught fish. However, those same fishes also ate Clouser Minnows in various colours and I have come to the conclusion that if you were to throw a fly in the right areas in the sea for long enough you would likely catch a fish on it.

A silver kob caught on a Clouser meant for garrick – kob and garrick often hunt in the same areas and by varying your retrieve, especially slowing down and fishing deeper, will increase your chances of catching both species.

Remember your roots…

I started fly fishing because of trout and targeted trout almost exclusively for many years. Varying the retrieve, besides fishing the right areas, was often key in catching fish. My two favourite ways of retrieving flies were a short and hard jerky one that I learnt from Mark Krige and then a long slow, even strip that I learnt from Billy de Jong. By applying the same two retrieves to saltwater fish made a huge difference to catching higher numbers of all species. The biggest mistake that most people make trying to catch garrick on fly, for instance, is to rip the fly through the water as fast as they can – I’ve noticed that many people fishing for South African saltwater fish retrieve fast, no matter which species they’re after. It certainly is one of the ‘retrieves’ that works, but I’ve found that a much slower jerky retrieve with fairly long pauses between strips works a lot better for me. This same retrieve, along with long slow strips, has worked well on kob, elf and many other reef fishes.

A slow, even retrieve with Clouser variations along drop-offs can be deadly for kob.
A fly that can trigger strikes in murky water or at night on a slow, even retrieve – yet I’ve caught garrick and kob on these hybrids in crystal clear water and in broad daylight on a slow retrieve.

Time and time again…

Time on the water is by far the best way of getting to know certain areas of our coastline and which fishes to catch when, where and on what (besides reading available literature, both scientific and angling articles, on our saltwater fishes). If you simply spend time, like an entire day or a few, in an area you may spot a trend or simply come across a rare occurrence and catch a memorable fish. With a lot of patience you will catch fish, time and time again.

I cherish every fish I catch (they all count!) like this pretty Cape stumpnose that attacked a large zonker DMA fly meant for kob. I would not have caught this little bugger if I didn’t stick it out in the poor conditions.

The power of observation…

When we fish we often try to spot fish and only fish, as in the actual body of a fish or parts of it, like a tail or head or dorsal etc. However, the presence of fish may be revealed in many other ways, like a swirl, a splash, sand or mud clouds, nervous or jumping baitfish or even the sudden disappearance of baitfish, numerous blow holes in sand or mud flats on low tide, a scum line and so on. By being alert on the water and keeping these other signs in mind you can increase your chances of catching a fish. Also don’t forget to watch other anglers around you; you can learn a lot by watching bait anglers catch fish or guys casting paddle tails into the surf and having brief conversations with them on the beach.

Casting in the vicinity of jumping baitfish got me this elf, which was the only fish for me on that day.

Do it yourself…

Saltwater fishermen each have many secrets, whether they be spots, type of bait/lure/fly, time of day, tide etc., which they mostly keep in closed circles or to themselves. It doesn’t mean that you HAVE to know them to catch a certain fish. So when you question and receive tips from the gurus (i.e., MC Coetzer) don’t expect them to give you GPS coordinates of where they caught a particular fish on a specific fly; use their advice to find your own glory. The areas that fish species populate are often vast stretches of coastline and there is potential to find your own honey hole or a couple of reliable spots for any fish and you can use veteran knowledge to find and/or catch the fish.

Blacktail are abundant on our coastline, a great species to target on fly tackle. By following Conrad Botes’ advice on how to catch these fish you could have a lot of fun in many spots with reef flats, cobble stone points or in deep gullies.

Catch of the day…

Always take a variety of flies with you on saltwater trips; I’ve paid the price and lost out on ideal opportunities to catch something else when I only carried a handful of my favourite garrick flies with me. When an unusual opportunity presents itself do not ignore it, like catching a feeding guitarfish on fly while searching for yellowtail on foot. An open-minded approach will minimize those barren days and can make a mullet the catch of the day.

A cruising guitarfish that slammed down on a chartreuse Clouser while I was hunting another species on the West Coast. I frequently bump into these fish and they are very enjoyable and actually quite technical to catch; they’ve saved a mombakkie on many occasions.
This eagle ray was hooked just under the nose on a chartreuse and white Clouser fished along the bottom on blind cast; I’ve caught three of these fish in the same way fishing bright bucktail flies slowly along the bottom, every one of them hooked just under the nose. Their constraint of a peculiarly situated mouth may make it difficult for these eager fish to get the fly inside the mouth, but that clearly does not stop them from trying to eat it!

Labour of love…

Do not expect to catch a fish on every saltwater trip, the ocean is not a river or a dam and fish are much more wide-spread and exposed to more variables. Rather go out there and just enjoy the solitude and ‘strange’ occurrences.

When the fishing is slow I enjoy looking around me and admire marine animals, like spotting camouflaged sea slugs in rock pools or watch rock suckers drop off exposed boulders as I walk by. On most trips I collect rubble, trying to keep the spots clean and free of pollution; it is nice to return to a clean, unpolluted area and it also keeps me busy and happy on the slow days. Throwing a fly into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans that border the South African coast is a laborious pastime and if it’s only fish you’re after then it will break your spirit.

Collecting a stripping basket full of rubbish on every trip has made a notable difference to some of the spots I fish.

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