During my 30 years in Port Alfred my interest in the
traditional forms of offshore bottom fishing, rock and surf, and estuary
fishing has declined in line with reducing fish populations. Blame the
commercials, blame the anglers, blame whoever you want, the bottom line
is that there are fewer fish today. Paradoxically, this has turned my
interest towards more difficult ways of catching them, like offshore game
fishing, lighter tackle bottom fishing and saltwater fly fishing. I'm
not catching bigger fish or more fish via these methods, but I have become
more satisfied with the quality of my fishing experiences. Unlike in the
warmer waters of KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique, the Eastern Cape has fewer
saltwater gamefish species, and then in smaller quantities. But my new-found
ways of fishing for our elusive East Cape fish have re-instilled in me
the desire, urge and excitement that are, or should be, associated with
fishing for pleasure.
And so it was that my big brother, John, the guy that knew everything,
the guy that has caught in excess of forty saltwater species on fly, the
KwaZulu-Natal fly tying champion, the guy that had been there and done
it, came to visit me in the Eastern Cape. What an honour to host a fly
fishermen so deep into the mystic art, so experienced that his most prized
fly tying material was the urine-stained scrotum hair of the elusive Italian
mountain goat. Big brother's mission was simple: catch two of the species
that so far had eluded him on the fly, namely spotted grunter and Cape
The first half of the mission was accomplished with little difficulty.
He visited the nearby Mtati River, collected a few sand prawns in a bottle,
spent an hour with his vice and box of wonders tying an exact replica,
and an hour later, fishing a sinking line from his kick boat, and with
yells of delight, produced a spotted grunter. This wondrous fishing feat
raised him by quite a few rungs on my ladder of recognition. It began
to look to me like this guy might actually know what he was doing, and
during the celebrations that evening I paid more attention than I usually
did to what he was saying.
Approximately 40 nautical miles southwest of Port Alfred and 3 miles off
the coast opposite Woody Cape lies a group of small islands collectively
known as Bird Island. I had ventured to Bird Island in my ski-boat a number
of times, and every visit had produced some new and exciting experience,
and it was here that I intended taking big brother John for him to attempt
to catch his yellowtail on a fly.
I had on many occasions caught yellowtail on fairly light tackle, but
had never attempted to take them on fly. Thus I was familiar with the
awesome power of these fighting fish and I viewed big brother's equipment
with some reservation. He, however, assured me that he was the expert,
and after all, who had caught the grunter, and who knew about the Italian
mountain goat hair and blah blah blah. I shrugged my shoulders and we
set off on an uneventful 2-hour sea ride to the islands.
We dropped anchor in the foamy white water in the lee of Seal Island and
prepared for the task at hand. The scene was perfect, with clear water
and just a gentle wind. The penguins and seals on the island watched us
curiously, while the thousands of gannets and other sea birds that call
the main island home circled overhead.
Over the mainland a thunderstorm loomed, perhaps as an omen of the battle
I rigged my tackle and baited up and was confident that I was well prepared.
After all, I had tested the combination the year before on a 38-kg sailfish
off Madagascar and not found it wanting. Big brother was busy preparing
his 8-weight fly outfit and deciding on an appropriate fly.
As they tend to do, a school of yellowtail appeared out of nowhere and
one of them immediately devoured my drift pilchard and the game was on.
Big brother began simultaneously to thrash the air with his fly line,
and shortly afterwards his joyous yell told me he was into a fish. His
jubilation faded as the 'tail first stripped all his running line and
then started on the backing. Wild curses rent the sea air as the diameter
of the line on his reel became ever smaller, and still with no end to
the fish's run in sight. Finally the backing came to an end, and with
the abrupt finishing of the line, his rod snapped cleanly into two pieces
and the tip slid down the line into the sea. There was nothing he could
do now but hang on and hope. But after all, he knew about the mountain
goat hair and stuff, so how could there be any problem with a few knots.
I boated my fish and gently reminded big brother that the school of yellowtail
had followed his fish to an inaccessible, to us, part of the reef, so
I'd be grateful if he would bring his fish, along with the rest of the
school, back to the boat. With great gusto he set about the job of retrieving
the fish, and a bit of his dignity, though now with both his rod and his
ego somewhat altered. While he was thus occupied, his reel, unused to
such rough and tumble tactics, freed itself from the reel-seat and dropped
into the water. This left him clasping what was left of his rod and holding
the line in his hands, one end of which was attached to the fish and the
other to the reel lying on the bottom of the ocean. An epic handline battle
folowed. He got the reel back first, only to have the loose retrieved
line and backing promptly set about tangling him up in such a way as only
backing can do, and invariably will do, at any inopportune moment
Finally the top half of the broken rod showed itself; and soon afterwards
the yellowtail, a fish of somewhere between 12 and 15 pounds, was brought
to the boat. The fish was lifted and admired and then gently released
in a manner almost a ritual that only someone who loves fish and fishing
At precisely the moment the fish swam away, the storm broke with a flash
of lightning and a great clap of thunder. The scene was something to behold:
big brother the guy who knew it all, who had seen and done everything,
who had all the "right" gear, who knew about the mountain goats standing
in the back of the boat in the pouring rain, tangled up in metres of line
and holding his broken rod. But the ear-to-ear grin on his wet face told
the other side of the story. He'd got his yellowtail on the fly (though
just who caught who remains an ongoing debate).
Since that day at Bird Island he is a lot more humble when talking about
matters fly-fishing. Now and again, when he forgets himself a bit, I remind
him gently of the day when, like the mountain goats, it was the rest of
the crew that came close to having the urine-stained scrotum hairs.