Jerk @ both ends: Mozambique – Fly-fishing island style

Getaway Magazine Article By: Ari Bert
1 April 2003

The fly-fishing Jerk Ari Bert throws some pretty unusual lines off Inhaca Island, Mozambique, comes face to fly with some astonishing creatures . . . and asks some penetrating questions about this eccentric sport.

Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies 
“Why do you flyfish?” The asker was a kid of nine or 10 and he was looking at me in that quizzical way that only the young or truly irritatingly innocent can. A tale of virtue and aesthetics would probably not make sense, so I pondered comparing fly-fishing to a video game where one selects the more difficult levels to increase one’s sense of satisfaction. Excepting that with some species of fish it has become increasingly less challenging to catch them on fly.

I finally bent down to the boy and said in slow, measured terms: “I think I flyfish for two reasons, and probably more so for the second. First, I flyfish because my ‘lure’ is too small and light to cast in any other way. Secondly, I absolutely love the look and feel of a fly rod and reel, especially when there is a fish on the other end.”

I explained that if I catch a fish, I want to have my sensitive, lightweight fly rod bending double and I want my reel to be screaming with absolute ferocity as the fish accelerates toward an event horizon of either delight or disappointment. In fact this happens less than five per cent of the time. But when it does, boy-o-boy-o-boy, does my adrenaline surge! And that situation has never happened to me on any other type of rod.

So I love my fly rods. All of them. From my expensive Titanium High Modulus ‘serve you breakfast in bed’ rods, to my cheapo, heavy fibreglass ‘break your arm at the elbow if you cast too hard’ rods. I also love my fly reels. I prefer the silent ones to the noisy racket makers, but I’ve never gotten rid of any of my reels, even the decommissioned ones lie around for spare parts. Fly lines, on the other hand. . . .

I have a love-hate relationship with fly lines. I love to cast a fly line and see a V-shaped wedge of fly line being driven by some almost supernatural force on the waters’ surface. I love the feel of a slick fly line as it tenses up a millisecond before I strike. I adore the feel of the fly line being stripped through my fingers as an invisible fish tears off with my fly in its mouth.

I personally believe that the fly line is the most important part of fly casting and a good fly line outperforms a good fly rod any day. There is something sublime about the feel of a quality fly line in the air . . . I did say a ‘love-hate’ relationship, didn’t I? Well, I hate the incomprehensibly complicated knots that form regardless of retrieving technique. I despise the loops that hook onto my shoes or sandals, twigs, grass stalks or any obstruction that will destroy any well-placed cast. I absolutely refuse to cast in a crosswind and will tear my hair out at ‘floating line’ that sinks or worse – a ‘sinking line’ that floats. Terrible memories of frozen hands retrieving a cold, wet fly line plague me.

“But what on earth has this got to do with Mozambique?” I hear you chant. Well, if you just give me a moment, I will explain. . . .

Inhaca’s indigo waters

It all started at Inhaca Island, to give the exact location. I’d been invited out by Rob Moir of Indigo Charters for a “wee spot of offshore fishing” and anyway, I felt like a plate of LM tiger prawns in lemon-and-butter sauce.

A couple of days later I made my way down the N12 via Komatipoort to Maputo and was picked up by Rob, who transferred me across to Inhaca to his modest base. We’d hardly arrived when Peter Kidd, a regular visitor, invited me out for some reef fishing. I’m by no means an expert in the ways of salt, and being a bit of a landlubber, I told Peter to treat me like a novice. My instructions to him were to “speak slowly and, if necessary, use diagrams.”

Peter headed out to a point plotted out on his GPS (I’ve gotta get myself one of those gadgets) and asked me to rig up my fastest sinking line and large Lefty’s Deceiver pattern. A 10-pound leader and wire trace were essential. Once we’d found the mark, Peter positioned us a little way off so that the current would push us right over the reef. I let out all of my fly line into the water – no need for casting – and let it sink. All of a sudden, my line was screaming and instinctively I struck hard on the rod!

The next few seconds were bewilderingly intense as I settled into one of the hardest fights I have ever experienced. The runs were powerful and long, with about 25 metres of line screaming off the fly reel at each pull. In fact, so powerful and fast was the fish, that line did not have enough time to come off the spool and my rod tip was repeatedly pulled well below the surface. The fish had me running from one side to the other trying to keep my line away from the motors as it charged off in a new direction.

Peter looked down and congratulated my on my first ‘cuda, or king mackerel (Scomberomorus commerson) which was still far from being landed. Periodically making its way to the surface, it would turn and with an almighty wrench swing its head down and dive deep. After a hectic quarter of an hour it finally came to hand. This toothy and powerful predator ranks as the most powerful fish I have ever caught on fly, so I can only imagine the power of large king or sailfish.

The wire trace had been all but ruined and I was definitely going to have to replace it, and probably the fly as well. While I was grinning away at my fish, a nasty little suspicion crept into the back of my mind and I had to reflect on a point that is now the focus of this article. Fly-fishing defined
Problem is, this fish could not be strictly regarded as a true fly-caught specimen. The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) defines fly-fishing so:

  1. The angler must cast, hook, fight and bring the fish to hand unaided.
  2. Casting and retrieving must be carried out in accordance with normal customs and generally accepted practices.

I hadn’t cast my fly at all: how do you cast to a fish that is invisible and probably about 20 metres below a boat that is moving over a reef? Tricky one, you will agree. I made up my mind and decided to “forget the rules”. I was just going to enjoy my fishing. So we started the same drifting procedure again.

But getting my fly to sink the required 20 to 30 metres was becoming tedious. We’d have one small chance to get a decent retrieve in before the current washed us away. I had caught one spectacular fish, but nothing else was interested. As the sun started to drop we headed back to Indigo Charters where Rob prepared us an amazing meal of giant crabs, sushi and ‘cuda steaks.

That night I learned we were going to be spending most of the next day following the same tactics – drifting over reefs while letting our lures and flies follow. Much later that night, while lying under my mosquito net and listening to the little bloodsuckers whine in futile rage, I made a firm decision and steeled myself for the inevitable fall from grace.

The next morning we set off with Rob to a likely looking reef. The fish-finder (another gadget I must get) went crazy, bleeping like mad. Thousands of fish must have been hanging around down there and Rob picked something that looked like a fly-fisher’s nightmare: a large Scarborough reel attached to what in my mind was a rod designed for fighting marlin.

“Ever used one of these?” Rob asked, handing me the rig.

“Nope, but I’m here to learn!” I replied, only just managing to avoid the two-kilogram weight as it swung past my kneecaps.

“Drop it overboard and when it hits the bottom, give a wind back. You’ll pick something up, that’s guaranteed,” Rob ordered in his gruff captain’s voice as he rigged himself up.

Once overboard the lures and bait screamed down to the reef and within seconds I had my first tap. Upon striking, I started to reel in the unwieldy Scarborough frantically and within seconds was looking at my first small rock cod. Scarboroughs have been designed to waste as little time as possible and my reel brought in about half a metre of line a wind!

“Mind those two little spikes on its gill-plate, they’re poisonous!” Rob advised as I poked and prodded at the latest catch.

Suitably warned, I looked back at my fish whose air bladder had expanded to the extent that it started to bulge out of its throat. It was not going to be easy to release this fish successfully.

“Shall we keep it for dinner then?” I ventured. “For sure,” came the reply as I dispatched the fish to piscatorial and culinary heaven.

I dropped my weights overboard again and sure enough felt the tap-tap as fish began to take interest. Although this was an interesting way to spend the day fishing, it was not quite what I expected. I turned my mind back to my ideas from the previous night.Not quite fly . . . but it’s good clean fun!
“Do you have a smaller weight for me?” I asked Rob while rigging up my fly rod with a Chartreuse Lefty’s Deceiver.

“Yup,” came the answer and he passed me a lead weight about a two-and-a-half centimetres in diameter.

I attached a length of 10-pound mono to the hook of the Deceiver and fastened the weight about 30 centimetres below the fly. My idea was to get the fly down as quickly as possible and see what came to the party. The fly sped down to the bottom and I kept my index finger on the taught fly line, ready.

“It works!” I screamed and struck hard. Then the reel screamed into action and about 10 metres of line peeled off on the first run. A few winds later and the fish was off on another run – this was what I was here for!

Pumping the rod and working the reel as fast as I could, I slowly gained control over something big. We saw a flash of red deep below and Rob commented that it might be another blood snapper. A few hard-working minutes later I had the huge snapper in my hands. Then two more. The fights, however, were long enough to allow the fish to adjust to the pressure difference and I was able to release them back into the inky blue depths.

The next fish, however, was different. Instead of the red flash I’d been seeing, this one appeared a lot paler, almost pink. I reached over to lip-land it and luckily spotted the menacing teeth protruding from its jaws.

“It’s a vampire fish!” I yelped, whipping my hand back. The teeth might not have been the type to take fingers off, but they’d do a lot of damage. I slipped my fingers behind its gill plates and brought the fish onto the deck.

“Soldier bream,” came Rob’s observation. “Also very tasty,” he hinted as I admired its amazing teeth and fins.

“I guess it’ll be joining us for dinner then,” I laughed as I dropped it into the waiting cooler box.

The rest of the day was spent in more or less the same fashion.

We had just settled down to have some lunch on the calm sea when Rob asked if I’d like some calamari with our dinner that evening. I nodded and he pointed overboard: a large squid was floating alongside and he simply leaned over and netted it. I dare say, it was one of the most remarkable animals I’ve ever held in my hands.

Semi-transparent, it seemed to be made of artificial materials and its eyes were amazing in their weirdness. Surrounded by a green-blue tint in the otherwise semi-opaque flesh, these orbs looked out at the world through a strange wave-shaped pupil surrounded by a multicoloured iris. Very different from an octopus, its 10 tentacles varied in shape and length for very obviously different functions: a true denizen of the ocean. I found it very easy to imagine the sailors’ horror stories arising as myths about this strange-looking yet harmless creature.

After lunch we played around over the reefs catching rock cod, snappers and the occasional soldier bream, aka vampire fish! One strange fish was landed, and if anyone had told me that I’d be able to catch it on fly I’d have called them a liar. A hard take followed by little or no resistance had me reeling my line. A flash of yellow-brown came to the surface and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realised it was a trigger fish.

“Get many of these?” I asked and Rob shook his head.

A strange, coral-dwelling species, trigger fish have a small mouth lined with an uneven set of teeth that would make an orthodontist jump for joy. Obviously powerful enough to break and crunch through coral, I kept my fingers well away. Its leathery skin was a protective shield against the coral; strange horse-like eyes glared out.

The trigger fish’s name comes from a hard, modified dorsal fin that projects from its back. It is able to lower and raise this ‘trigger’ at will, but once in the locked, raised position it was impossible to move. The purpose of the trigger is to wedge itself into cracks and crevasses when threatened by a predatory fish or octopus.

I released it into the water, hoping that it would find its way back to its home among the coral, and turned to Rob who was already launching into his ideas about how best to prepare our catch for that evening’s feast.

I pondered over the day’s events which had led me to catch some memorable species on techniques which would probably be frowned upon in purist circles. I wondered how I’d explain to my peers that I’d been prostituting my skills in favour of the thrill of fish action. Then I remembered the kid who’d asked why I fly-fished.

I’ve got a third answer now. Now that I’ve thought about it, and it’s quite simple.

Because I love it!

In part 2: join the fishing Jerk on a journey to the Okavango in search of tigers. For more information visit the website at http://www.africanfishing.com or watch African
Angling Safaris every Wednesday on DStv Supersport.

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