Magic Days – Can fishing be the cure for heartache?

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I decided to drag out this piece I wrote about 8/9 years ago… thought’d I’d repost it here.. was originally published in the fantastic Fishing & Hunting Journal…

“MAGIC DAYS: Can fishing be the cure for heartache?

What do non-fisherman think about? This is a question I have found myself considering on numerous occasions in the past. I, probably like most of you, have been fishing and fish obsessed from a very early age. I was very lucky, my Dad fishes and he was an amazingly patient teacher, taking the time to take me fishing from about the time I could hold a rod, just barely, cutting down on his “real” fishing time, teaching me the basics.

In all honesty though I don’t think he could have had a more willing student. I was as I said obsessed with everything to do with fishing and it took up and still does take up about 90 percent of my thought process on a daily basis.

So getting back to the question on the first line. What the hell do people who don’t fish think about all day? My thoughts on fishing range from memories of past trips to fish caught, fish lost fish seen places visited, opportunities missed, casts gone astray and what I should have done or could have done better, to fantasies about faraway places teeming with hungry fish and not another fisherman for miles. Fantasies of traveling back in time to fish the “Golden Era” of our coastline, tuna and yellowtail off the bricks at Rooikrantz, Grunter and Kob in the Breede, Garrick and Springer in the Transkei estuaries, Shad and Couta off the rocks on the Natal South Coast, big kingies off Zululand beaches. And that’s just this country!

Then there is the equipment! That’s a whole other story! I love fishing tackle. Good fishing tackle to me is like fine art to many. The feel of a well-balanced spinning out fit in my hands is something akin to driving a sports car for others. Fast, crisp, responsive and deadly (Oh how I wish) A good baitcasting setup is like my version of a top end sedan. Smooth, comfortable, effortless and powerful. A great fly rod, with a properly matched line is my classic vintage sports convertible. Stylish, classic and an absolute pleasure to drive whose action drives away all other thoughts of things not to do with the perfection of what you hold in your hands.

A great surf stick, the long-range 4×4. With the power and distance to cover even the toughest terrain and the endurance and capabilities to take on the rocky roads.

Even the humble “broomstick” boat road and the classic huge black Scarborough, although by no means beautiful, when balanced properly and attached to a big bottom dwelling leviathan, that is my equivalent to the Unimog. Ugly but effective, and quite simply unstoppable. Just holding good fishing tackle, even when miles from the water can be an amazing feeling, a kind of warm fuzziness that brings a smile to my lips and a buzz to my head. “ What am I going to catch with this? “ “ I wonder if this will be the rod that catches me that elusive 6kg Grunter?” “ Oh if only I had this reel when I hooked that monster Kingie up at Kosi…” Questions like that always seem to jump to mind when I have tackle in my hands.

I recall a time not to long ago when that tackle was something of a saviour to me.

I had spent 3 blissful years living in the Cayman Islands working as a charter boat captain. Now for a 22-year-old Cayman is a pretty sweet place to be. If ever there was a place on earth for the “ No Stress No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problems “ capital of the world, Cayman would be tough to beat. For a fishing obsessed person like me it was paradise. I worked probably 3 to 4 days a week and was usually done running boat trips by about 2 or 3 in the afternoon leaving every afternoon and at least 2 mornings a week, free to fish and explore that perfect piece of paradise. I also had the amazing experience of meeting the love of my life, Hannah, while living in Cayman. A more perfect woman I could never hope to find. Smart, funny, talented and more beautiful than should be allowed, I was in heaven. And she liked to fish too! Life was great. For 2 and bit years this is how life went. Eat, sleep, and breathe, fishing and paradise.

But time in a place like Cayman moves so fast and before I knew it I had been there nearly 3 years. Hannah decided that she needed to go back to university in Canada and she had to leave. I planned to follow but at the time just didn’t have the money I needed to start up in Canada to follow her straight away so we decided she would leave and I was to follow 6 months later. I would go and visit her and she would visit me but just once each way, as it is a pricey place to fly to and from. And so came the dreaded day of her departure. Many tears were shed and life really didn’t seem as much fun anymore. I limped home from the airstrip, crushed and dejected and not a happy chap at all.

At the time my best mate Dylan, his girlfriend (now wife) and I, we all lived together and we were house sitting a beautiful house right on the beach on the southwestern corner of the island for some friends of ours. The house was on our favorite section of beach on the island. We nicknamed it Tarpon Alley. It is a quiet secluded stretch of beach starting outside the protection of a barrier reef so it has surf on the one end and stretches for a few miles up into a coral lagoon known as South Sound and Red Bay. Over the years we came to love this beach as it afforded the best view of the sunset on the island and didn’t have a single hotel or condo or anything tourist related anywhere along it. Just natural trees, bush and coral rock formations. And fish.

I was feeling pretty low at the time and then Joanna, Dylan’s girlfriend left to go back to Manchester in the UK so it was just the boys, stuck in paradise. Now most guys would relish time away from the ladies for a little bit of hanging with the mates and shooting the sh!t, but I missed my girl and we were all like mates anyway, so that was never an issue, we always sat and shot the sh!t together. Times were dark and I was in a spiraling cycle of a mild depression.

During all these dark hours a sliver of light arrived in the form of a Fed Ex box bearing my name. Of course!! The tackle we had ordered!!! You cannot buy decent light tackle on Cayman, it is impossible as no one there fishes light tackle, its all hand lines and offshore trolling. So we had saved and ordered some stuff from the US. Two rods and two reels each. A casting out fit and a spinning outfit each. Man the boys perked up right then and there. Smiles and high fives were exchanged and we set to withy a mad frenzy to get lines on the reels and rods rigged and ready to fish.

Now if there are any ladies reading this, and I hope there are. Please don’t for one instance think that I replaced the love of my life with a fishing rod. Nothing could ever replace Hannah, but in a time of darkness, that fishing tackle, and the sport itself brought about for me an awakening and it opened the door for me to the realization that life needs to be grabbed by the horns every second of the way. Moping around feeling sorry for oneself is never good for anything. Fishing has always been my therapy, it makes me feel better than anything in the world (anything I can write about in a family magazine anyway) I have long gotten over going fishing to catch fish. Thankfully because it makes me a much happier fisherman and person. I have found that those who fish purely to catch fish rarely enjoy themselves as much as I do. Now please don’t misunderstand me, I love nothing more than the feel of a tight line and a bent rod, accompanied by a screaming drag and the sight of a good fish breaking the surface with my hook in the corner of it’s jaw. The best of feelings it truly is. But I just love being out there. I really do. Ja I know some of you who are reading this are saying to yourselves “ Ja ja that’s just his excuse because he can’t fish or never catches anything” But it is the truth. And just to let you know I do catch the odd fish now and then.

In the 7 days after receiving the tackle mentioned above, Dylan and I had what we have ever since referred to as “Magic Week”. Excited and pumped up by our new tackle we went on a mission. We fished our asses off! The beach in front of the house wasn’t nicknamed Tarpon Alley by us for nothing. At the time we were staying there we had noticed huge shoals of sprats right up against the shoreline and with the bait come the predators. Our first evening, literally an hour after we had received our new tackle, we were on the beach. We rigged the baitcasting outfits up. 7 foot sticks with Shimano Calcutta 400s on them and 30 pound braided line. I know that may sound like pretty heavy line but take into account that the stuff is as thin as 8-pound mono and we could fit nearly 400 yards onto those baitcasters. As we planned on using the sticks on everything from Tarpon to small tuna, snapper and everything in between, we wanted to be prepared. I can tell you the hook setting power that braids non-stretch qualities gives you when fishing for tarpon with concrete mouths is a real blessing.

Back to the story. Strolling down the beach we cast our lures out over the 1-foot shorebreak in the hole running parallel to the beach as we walked. I had on a Top Dog walking surface lure and Dylan a shallow running Plug. Not 5 casts in and my Top Dog was crashed by a 30 pound Tarpon which immediately spat the hook. Two turns on the reel handle and he crashed it again and just as quickly spat the plug again. Now Tarpon will do this to you. 10 hits, 5 hook-ups and one fish landed is a fair average. But the aerial display they put on, even when only on the hook for 20 seconds is something so spectacular you forget about the fact the fish just threw the hook..

I had at least ten hits over the next half hour with nothing staying on for more than about 30 seconds but we were have the time of our lives. Watching fish in the 30 to 50 pound range hammer a surface plug time and again 20 yards off the beach is an amazing experience. I realized after the tenth throwing of my Top Dog that my hooks obviously needed some sharpening. I didn’t have a file on me and I couldn’t be bothered at the time to walk the half-mile down the beach back to the house to get one as it was getting dark and I was having too much fun anyway. Just as I was examining my hooks I heard a shout from Dylan twenty yards up the beach and looked up to see his rod bent double against the orange glow of the setting sun. Seconds later a good fish came rocketing 4 feet into the air, landed with a crash and a second later jumped again 15 feet further out, burning line as it went. Looking into the sunset I could only see the silhouette of the fish and couldn’t quite make out what it was. Then I heard Dylan shout “ Snook!”

Now here was a fish that had been eluding us for nearly 3 years. Snook are a very close relative of the Nile Perch of central and Northern Africa and of the Barramundi of Australia. Superb fighting fish they are real brawlers, preferring the heavy cover of mangroves and brackish estuaries and making them a tough adversary on any tackle. Now in Florida and parts of Mexico and the central Americas they are common and the main target of many fisherman, but in Cayman they are a rare catch. Coupled with the fact that they have eyesight that would make a sharp eyed wild brownie seem like a glycomma sufferer doesn’t help when you are fishing in water that is as clear as gin. So they had become our ultimate prize in Cayman and we had yet to take one. Having only met one other person who had and he had lived there for 10 years.

But the blessing of Neptune was upon us and after 10 minutes of pressure from Dylan he had her in the shore break. The final rays of the sun were just kissing the gentle lap of the shore break and we could see her amber flanks through the crystal clear water and there it was. The dark unmistakable lateral line of the Snook! I walked knee deep into the lukewarm water and grabbed the leader. Gently slipping my hand into her jaw, I slid the other under her belly to support her and lifted her from the water. The sun was making its final dip into the sea and the colours reflecting off her flanks were like beaten gold. The dark prominent lateral line, not unlike that of a Garrick, just heavier, was jet-black and sparkling.

I cradled her gently in the water and Dylan came over and got a good grip on her jaw and under her belly while I grabbed our camera to capture the catch on film. We shot a few quick pictures before Dylan walked back out into the water and spent a few minutes resuscitating her and we watched her fin off strongly into the crystal clear water just as the last of the suns rays were sinking below the horizon.

Dylan walked his way back to the beach where I was holding his rod and the smile on his face said it all. I handed him back his stick, we shook hands, him thanking me for tailing and landing his fish, me congratulating him on a superb catch. I think we were both just kind of congratulating eachother in a way that friends do after you have just achieved something you always wanted to, and are feeling pretty smug about it.

The last of the tropical light was fading fast; we had maybe 15 minutes of light left, the sunsets that close to the equator really happen very fast. Strolling back towards the house, about 500 metres back along the beach Chatting about the evenings fishing, admiring our new tackle, how great it felt with a fish on the end, stoked we had finally landed a snook, I was having the odd throw in likely looking spots along the walk back.

Half way back to the house, along a section of beach at the mouth of the coral lagoon, there is a section of flat coral running at 45 degrees out from the beach for about 40 metres. The tide was dropping and we could see the water rushing off the ledge and churning over the edges. A fishy looking spot if ever I saw one. I swung a cast up onto the top of the ledge and started working the Top Dog back over the drop off. Had to be fish there. True enough the lure hadn’t gone more than half a metres over the drop off and it got clobbered by 4 feet of armour plated silver. The tarpon were patrolling that edge, picking off the bait getting washed off the ledge and my Top Dog blended right in.

Luckily this fish somehow managed to stay hooked. After an awesome aerial display in the last dying minutes of light we had her at the beach. Dylan returned the favour for me by lipping her and I then walked into the water, lifted her from the water for a picture and was blown away by the primitive beauty of these fish. Saying they are beautiful is an understatement. Scales like polished chrome reflect the multitude of colours associated with Caribbean sunsets. I was so humbled by that fish, weighing in at around 40 pounds, not huge but who had put up a spectacular struggle. I lowered her into the water and revived her till she was strong enough to swim off into the now nearly black water. Again handshakes and smiles and back slaps were exchanged. Life was good. We had just landed two amazing fish, on our favorite stretch of beach, on a little tropical island paradise, fishing with the best tackle either of us had ever used, with friends there to enjoy and capture the moment. We got back to the house, slapped crayfish we’d caught the night before on the braai, cracked good couple beers and sat back and enjoyed a very blissful and near perfect evening.

For those few hours of fishing and post fishing enjoyment, the whole fishing process, the place associated with it, the tackle, the fish, the fight, the friends, the release, the after catch analysis, it all came together to transport me away from the sadness and pain of Hannah not being there. It also made me realize again that I live in paradise, all over again, and I need to get it while the going is good. And we did.

For the next 7 days we fished that section of beach everyday, no matter what the weather and we caught fish everyday! Tarpon, kingies, Springer, snapper, queen mackerel… if the bait was there, the gamefish were there and we were on it. It was,in every sense of the word, a Magic Week”

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