Photos by Mark Murray and John Travis. The one where Conrad scores big with tarpon in Gabon.
Despite the fact that we hit the sack at 1am after our first day of fishing at African Waters’ camp Sette Cama in Gabon, I was awake before John’s alarm went off at 4am. A massive tropical rainstorm has hit us and it was bucketing down like there was no tomorrow. And it wasn’t only rain; the lightning made the inside of our cabin look like a disco ball was spinning above my bed. Needless to say, conditions were not fishable, so everyone stayed in bed. Later, while we were having coffee at about half past five, African Waters Head Guide Mark Murray, from the Sette Cama camp in Gabon, told us that the rain should clear up, so we donned rain gear and got ready to head down to the beach. Jeff decided to stay in bed as he was being seriously hammered by jet lag.
By the time made it to the beach, day was breaking and we missed whatever action might have gone down. Most of us were quite despondent, but Mark assured us that rain is good and that it will turn on the action in the estuary mouth and surf.
Flat dog rock
On this particular morning I noticed what looked like a log floating towards me just behind the shorebreak. When it suddenly dissappeared, it occured to me that it might be a croc. A few minutes later Mark came up to me and warned that I should be on the lookout for this guy, since he was spotted patrolling the beach. Ocean-going crocs are common in Gabon and the one above was photograph by Eric, the lodge owner.
We decided to hit the estuary and do some jack busting. I enjoyed fishing in the rain. The sporadic showers cooled everything down a bit, which was a pleasant change from the day before. Soon we saw Mike catching a good size jack, and it wasn’t long before everyone enjoyed some action.
John and I tried to have some of the topwater action like we did the previous morning, but for some or other reason the long-fin jacks were not going for our small flippers and poppers. After seeing my popper being refused, bopping around among a pack of marauding jacks, I decided change of approach and switched to a small yellow Clouser. John tried a small EP baity and both of us scored straight away. We fished until 10am, smashing jacks and snapper, before we headed back to camp.
Not a snowball’s chance in hell
The evening session was the quietest of the week, with not much action going down. As soon as the sun started dipping, there was a bit of jack action and Mike managed one on the beach. We were all fishing hard, since last night proved that things might change when you least expect it and everyone was hoping for tarpon or threadfin. At sunset we start seeing tarpon, but most of them are rolling way back in the gutter just inside of the back line. Not a snowball’s chance in hell of reaching them. Nonetheless, we kept at it. It was around 9pm that I spotted a couple of rollers, closer in. Although they were few, I knew my fly was in the zone and I fished with determination.
Yet despite all our efforts, no further interest from the poons. On my way back to camp, I decided to change my set-up for the next mornings session. Up to that point, I was fishing an intermediate line for the tarpon and a sinking line for the snapper and threadfin. Tarpon feed up, I remember reading in an article once. Why am I fishing sinkers and intermediate line then? I decided that I stand a better chance getting the attention of the tarpon with a floating line, since the fly will remain close to the surface for longer, where the tarpon will be more likely to spot it from below.
Back at camp I changed lines and loaded my Beulah switch rod with a Rio Outbound Short floating line. Although I had regular tarpon taper floaters, I chose the Outbound, since I felt confident that best distance was to be reached with this line and switch rod. I chose a small black deer hair and hackle streamer because I thought that I would be able to get better distance with a small fly.
Day 3. Tarpon Sunday
On the morning of our third day, a Sunday, we woke up at 4am to clear skies. Since changing tides became less favorable for fishing the mouth, we felt that this morning was perhaps our last good tide for a morning session. Coffee went down the gullets; gear loaded into the boats and off we went. The Saffa team was on the beach first, and this morning looked like it’s going to be the shit. No wind, perfect conditions. Jeff and Mike, who was fishing with Mark, saw tarpon rolling in the river mouth, just a few hundred meters from where we parked the boats. Needless to say, we didn’t see them on the beach until much later.
As soon as we had enough light, we saw tarpon rolling. The energy among us was electrifying. Garth was the first of us to go tight on a tarpon, but unfortunately the fish didn’t stick. What made it exceptionally frustrating was that it looked like most of the tarpon were just beyond our reach. Just as I was thinking this, Arno went tight. And the fish stuck! Now all of us were casting like bezerkers while Arno fought his first poon. He was standing right next to me and I watched as a good-sized fish tail walked with Arno doing his best to beat it. Then, as it tail walked again, the line parted.
Tarpon in Gabon!
Arno looked at me with disbelief and frustration. Despite the fact that he was using 100lb shock tippet, the line was chafed through on the fish’s maw. While he ran up the beach to re-rig, the rest of us kept on fishing, with daylight increasing and the sun about to come up.
At one point there were pods of fish everywhere, rolling sporadically. Despite the distance, I did my best to reach and cover fish I saw. The outbound floater combined with a light fly allowed me a satisfying casting distance. I was watching a cast land, when I saw two big poons roll to my left. Big golden backs with massive scales gracefully breaking the surface and disappearing again. I made a double hand retrieve as fast as I could to get my line in and recast. Made a single back cast and then shot the line. Not the distance I hoped for, but it looked like I covered the rollers with a bit of a lead. Two strips. Then that subtle eat that could only be a tarpon. I locked down on the line.
Trying to remember what happened next is difficult now, but I do remember the incredible force with which that fish took off. Peeling line off the locked Shilton drag as if it wasn’t set at all. And then of course, that magnificent golden body climbing into the air, far away, in the waves, and crashing back into the water with one hell of a commotion. While the tarpon was keeping me busy with the airborne antics, I moved down the beach to my right as the fish moved out to sea.
I was terrified and felt sick to my stomach. I’m going to lose this fish; it’s going to spit the hook! I remember pulling as hard as I possibly could. Then the flyline re-appeared in the guides and I realised that I’m winning and the poon is still on. Joy and ecstasy! I’m fighting a giant tarpon on a beach in West Africa!
The last bit was the hardest. It felt impossible to move the fish and it made bursts every now and then. But eventually it was in the gutter just behind the shore break. Still not willing to co-operate, it made a head stand and showed it’s massive tail. Showing me the middle finger, I thought. I tried to bully it out the gutter, and then the fucker surprised me by sticking it’s head out the water.
While I was trying to figure out what it was doing, the fish made a last attempt at jumping, and came out two thirds before crashing back into the sea in front of me. Hook going to pull now for sure, I thought. Agony. But it was still stuck and I could see it in the dark tannin stained water just inside the shore break. After a failed attempt to surf it onto the sand with a wave, the fish slipped back in the gutter. Desperation.
A few more waves washed through and then I saw it again. I gave it everything I got. And then that ecstatic moment when the fish surrenders to the force of an incoming wave and deposited on the beach at my feet … It was only after this that I realize John standing next to me. I don’t remember a lot of the release and pictures, only that it happened very quickly and that the fish was released after only 5 photos, less than 20 minutes after I hooked it. It was hooked on the inside of the upper jaw, with a #3/0 Gamagatsu SC15. 60lb leader and 80lb flouro bite tippet. I felt emotionally overwhelmed with ecstasy, fatigue and gratitude.
Rolling in the tarpon in Gabon
While I was recovering from shock, I looked up and noticed that Arno was walking down the beach. He was hooked up and about 5 minutes into a fight. Big tarpon. I stood next to him, watching him as he battled a 100lb-plus size fish. Arno, who has a lot of experience fighting massive GT’s off the Zululand coast, knew how to fights a fish this size. With the rod in an almost horizontal position, he made the fly line do the work. Instead of trying to get as much line as possible back on the reel, he let the fish take the line and head down the beach.
With the massive drag created by the fly line and outgoing tide, the fish was forced towards the shore break. The shore break was where most of the fighting went down and it took nerves of steel and a lot of determination to get the fish beaten. Anxious minutes passed as we all stood and watch as Arno battled his massive tarpon. By this time Mark, Jeff and Mike noticed the commotion and came running down the beach.
“Everyone stood there with gaping maws, trying to comprehend the sheer size of this fish.”
Eventually Arno managed to force the fish into the shallows where a wave picked the fish out the gutter and pushed it onto the sand. Everyone stood there with gaping maws, trying to comprehend the sheer size of this fish. While Mark got ready with the camera, John helped Arno to tilt the fish so that Mark could snap a few photos. As the fish was almost impossible to lift, Arno made use of an incoming wave to drag the fish back in the water where it was revived before it swam off.
By the time Arno released his fish, the action on the beach was over and it was time to hit the estuary. As we fished our way back to camp and following pods of marauding jacks, it was quite difficult to focus on the fishing. I kept thinking of the moment that that tarpon ate the fly, and the chaos that ensued. But the morning session proved to be as good as the previous days; every now and then a jack would smash my fly and pull me from my reverie.
Back at camp, it was time to celebrate with a few beers. After lunch we all hanged out on the stoep and tied flies or drank a few more beers. Arno was still so amped after his monster tarpon, and he tied a few killer tarpon patterns to be tested that evening. Eventually it was time for a bit of shut eye before the evening session.
Because we were moving away from the favourable tides, Mark suggested a new tactic that has never been tried before. The plan was to anchor one of the boats in the main channel on the inside of the outer break. This is where most of the action takes place and at least a hundred meters from the shore-break, so effectively unreachable from the beach. It was quite a dangerous operation as anchoring the boat is difficult. John and Jeff volunteered for the first session. The rest of us fished the beach that night, but the beach did not produce the goods that night.
From the beach I could see Paku, the skipper, setting anchor and the boat settling in the chop. As the tide dropped, the water on the inside of the outside break became a lot calmer and the guys started fishing. I saw Jeff land a jack quite soon after they settled in. After the sun went down, we couldn’t witness any more action, but reports via the two way radio confirmed that some tarpon action was going down.
Later we learned that Jeff hooked up several times while John caught nothing. This had to do with the anglers’ position on the boat. John was fishing from the front, and effectively into the current. Jeff was fishing from the back of the boat and basically swinging down and across. As soon as the sun went down the guys saw tarpon rolling. It wasn’t long before Jeff hooked a monster tarpon that almost spooled him before the fly line snapped. After reeling in backing for about 5 minutes, Jeff re-rigged and cast again. He was on again on his first cast, and after a series of spectacular jumps, the hook pulled on another monster tarpon.
The problem with this method of fishing was the current shooting out to sea at an unstoppable pace. Combine that with a 100lb plus tarpon and you’ve got serious problems. I’m not sure if a tarpon can be landed here, as lifting anchor and following the fish is not an option. Eventually Jeff hooked a smaller tarpon and felt that the fish could be stopped sooner, meaning a chance to land a fish. Unfortunately this one also tossed the hook.
Jeff and John returned to the beach at about 10pm. While we were still casting our arms off, Mark and Paku brought cooler boxes with supper and beers to the beach. After we decided to throw in the towel, everyone had the pleasure of having supper on the beach under the stars. I was ecstatic. We were halfway into our trip and had the most unexpected day of tarpon action, surpassing my hopes and expectations. Three more days to go. More tarpon in Gabon to come? Threadfin or cubera?