Regardless of your skill level, being an angler always involves a modicum of luck. In Gareth Tate and Craig Pappin’s case, they hit the motherlode of estuary fly fishing in Tsitsikamma. Full story in The Mission Issue 25.

By Gareth Tate. Photos Gareth Tate and Craig Pappin.

In my fly fishing life there are a few experiences and stories that stand out a little more than others. Having grown up in the bushveld in the Lowveld, many stories have involved me trying my utmost to not become part of the food chain while fishing wild waters. A fair few stories have involved navigating croc infested rivers and being chased by grumpy hippos, ellies and buffaloes. Bushveld bliss.

Many stories involve fishing adventures in gnarly, unpredictable weather. Like the time we were dodging lightning that was striking way too close for comfort on open water. The electricity and static in the atmosphere had the hair on our arms standing out on end. I don’t think I could have laid down any flatter on the deck of the boat than I did then, without causing organ damage. Or the time we had to seek shelter in a cave to escape golf ball-sized hail stones. I still have scars on my head from those, yet we survived. Most memories imprinted on my mind, however, simply involve the extraordinary landscapes and wildlife that fly fishing takes me to and, of course, the mission and adventures we make to get there.

“This story stands out because it was so unexpected.”

A Narina Trogon in the Tsitsikamma forest. Photo Gareth Tate.
A Narina trogon in the Tsitsikamma forest. Photo Gareth Tate.

This story stands out because it was so unexpected and, after chatting to some of the fishy experts to confirm it, downright rare and lucky. It began with a morning chorus of birds praising the start of a blissful, balmy summer day on the Tsitsikamma coast. The forest was alive with sounds and life. The first cicadas started to protest from the treetops indicating that it was time to move and hit the water. After a quick coffee, my lifelong pal and fishing co-adventurer, Craig Pappin and I hit the lagoon to fling some flies at the local leeries. After a productive morning on the seven weights and going weak at the knees several times watching submarine-sized grunters deny our turd flies, we headed back to the house for a breather.

The weatherman had predicted rain for that afternoon, so we knew we had to squeeze in some more fishing before the front pulled in. After an apple and a beer (don’t judge, I was on holiday) and, finally having convinced our significant others that where we wanted to go was a good idea and a lekker place to tan, we decided to head off to a fishy little spot that Craig had found down the coast. It was quite a hike to get there, especially because I chose to wear my favourire plakkies (flip-flops). The hike was worth it.

estuary fly fishing
Leervis country – yes. Santer country no, but that’s what Gareth Tate and Craig Pappin lucked into on a mission up a Southern Cape estuary. Photo Gareth Tate.

As the path snaked down the valley, the forest opened up to reveal a gorgeous little bay framed by jagged rocky shelves, waves lapping gently on its shores and a scene of true natural beauty. Clouds hung in the sky like large bunches of cotton wool. Ancient yellowwood trees towered over the forest canopy. A Fish eagle called from above. Knysna Turacos scurried among the treetops. The summer call of Sombre Greenbuls filled the air. Narina Trogons, one of our more beautiful and rare forest birds, called their mournful song as they welcomed us into the bay.

“My litchis (eyeballs) were peeled wide open to take it all in.”

It almost felt like we were the first people ever to set foot in this place. Paradise. To my right a tea-coloured river wound through the thickly-forested valley, eventually meeting the waves and spilling into the bay. As my dad would say, my litchis (eyeballs) were peeled wide open to take it all in.

We started off fishing the bay with no luck and, with the pushing tide, decided to head up the river. Apart from a few sizeable grunter tailing as we left the bay and meandered upstream, the river seemed quite devoid of any fish life. None of the shoals of baitfish, mullet and streepies that usually frequent these river systems. ‘Strange’, I thought to myself. After about a fifteen-minute barefoot walk inland (my plakkies were becoming cumbersome) along the riverbanks and a few river crossings, we found a deep little honey hole on the river bend that looked promising. In the hopes of enticing something up from the depths I cast a silicone mullet fly I’d tied the day before and that had proved deadly for the leeries that morning. A shad or a leerie would do.


A few more casts against a steep bank and a change of spot, however, brought something unfamiliar up from the bottom and into view. Out of nowhere, a mean looking fish with matched aggression, intercepted my fly on the surface. My heart nearly stopped. It was red in colour, with a blunt robust nose, and had that similar pissed-off temperament and look of a trevally. Although it was very interested in the fly, I couldn’t get it to commit on the surface. I quickly changed tactics and tied on a #4 olive over white flash clouser and lobbed it into the top end of the honey hole near a large, submerged tree. Immediately, four or five of these red submarines were now on their way towards my fly! A twitch-twitch-twitch and pause was all it took. Boom!!

A fish hit the fly hard, hooked up and turned for the submerged tree. Naaier. My seven-weight protested as I applied full pressure and managed to turn the fish. The fight was over after a few solid runs and I brought the fish to the bank. My litchis were popping out of their sockets.

“It’s a steenbras! It’s a red stumpnose! No man, it’s a snapper! Wait, what the hell is it?”

estuary fly fishing
Gareth Tate with a santer caught on fly. Photo Craig Pappin

It’s a Steenbras! It’s a red Stumpnose! No man, it’s a snapper! Wait, what the hell is it? Our shouts of both confusion and excitement reached the thick forest and flushed out flocks of birds looking for a quieter neck of the woods. A beautiful red fish lay before us. It was perfect, had dark barring and its fins were edged with a brilliant electric blue. It had a serious set of gnashers that demolished my clouser quickly, and really strong jaws that clamped down on the fly when trying to unhook it. We had to keep fingers well clear. It was not a fish I’ve seen come out of a river or estuary in this area.

estuary fly fishing

For the rest of this story, get stuck into issue 25 below. As always, it’s free.

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