“Haha, just watch out for those friggen Jesus fish…We call them Jesus fish ‘cause every time you step on one you shout ‘oh GEEEZIS’, haha!”, Bricky explained joyfully before taking another sip from his beer. I had read somewhere that besides swimming far up rivers to feed on small mullet, skipjack also ambushed their prey around the sandy drop-offs in the mouth area of estuaries. When we met up for a drink I mentioned to Bricky that I wanted to check out the beautiful sand bars that I had spotted near the mouth of the Nahoon River on Google Earth. He warned me about the abundant electric rays that lived on the shallow sand banks and that I was in for a ‘shock’ without waders. However, he also commented that skipjack did feed in the mouth along the deep drop-offs and that I should try the spot in low-light conditions.
Electric rays can generate a powerful shock and the thought of stepping on multiple fish put me off the idea to wade the flats with first light. I waited till 7 am before committing to the voluntary torture.
The sun was up, but the angle of light was not great for viewing my path with polarised sunglasses. Fine powder sand swept up by the dropping tide also made the water misty and I found it difficult to determine depth, never mind see where I tramped. However, having targeted guitarfish in Langebaan, I felt confident that I’d be able to spot the rays in their shallow graves under the sand, even in the poor visibility. I was wrong.
I braved the rippled sand, expecting to see the outlines of resting Jesus fish and waded to the middle of the river. There were many splashes around me and I could see baitfish taking to the air as they fled from bigger fish rushing into the shoals of juvenile fish on the shallow sand bars. A skipjack scooted past me while I tied a natural Seaducer (a fly Bricky raved about in all our telephone conversations prior to the trip) to my tippet. That’s when I forgot about the Jesus fish.
I took one step forward and BOOM!!!: “Eina jou blikskottel!”…My entire left leg jolted and then I felt the wriggling marbled electric ray squirming under my foot. It was a big fish and the shock left my ankle numb. My heart was racing after the wake-up call and I could not figure out whether it was from the fright or the current that penetrated my body.
Then, as I looked around me, another fish lifted out from underneath the textured sand about a metre away from me and started swimming towards deeper water nearby. While moving around carefully I spooked two more of these critters that were buried invisible in close proximity to me. When a very big grunter tailed just out of casting range I nearly cried. I was in a minefield of Jesus fish and I couldn’t see them.
To my left, baitfish were thrown to the sky as the ‘ladies’ exploded underneath them, the large grunter tailed with leisure twisting its body sideways to feed on stuff in the shallows dead ahead of me and a duckbill ray glided over a mud bank to my right where it searched for crabs. I was left scratching in my fly box, not knowing which fly to try next and too scared to move in either direction to pick my target. I ended up tying three different flies to my tippet in less than five minutes without even casting one of them. Then the surface action stopped.
The air was charged with menace when I slipped out a heavily weighted chartreuse Clouser from my shirt pocket. “To hell with these things” I said to myself while tying the fly to 3X tippet. A Jesus fish swam slowly towards me and I lobbed the fly out so that it would cross its path on the retrieve. Similar to guitarfish, the marbled electric ray trapped the moving fly underneath its rostrum. I continued to retrieve the fly with a slow draw and the line went tight.
The clumsy fish rolled and flapped about and even tried to dig itself back under its sandy duvet. Revenge was sweet when I lifted the bastard animal onto a sand island. I flipped the fish over and covered my fingers with my shirt before releasing the hook with forceps. It was hooked just outside the mouth.
The tide started pushing into the mouth when I scooped the ray with my line basket to release it in deeper water. Then I experienced something extraordinary. The rays started to pop out of the sand around me, responding to the incoming tide, and took up station in the current, just like trout. The Clouser was too heavy to target the hovering fish and I quickly changed back to the non-weighted Seaducer.
I timed the sink of the fly so that it would drift into the stationary fish, but the rays were more agile than I imagined and they moved forward to intercept the swimming prawn imitation. It felt like I was sight fishing to rainbow trout with small nymphs, observing the takes before lifting into the fish. The only difference was that I could not see the mouth of the rays; the line simply stopped moving in the current and when I lifted into the fish, the hook gained purchase just in front of or in the corner of the mouth. Success, at last!
I had a jolly good time catching electric rays and even got the odd shot at spotted grunter moving into the shallows as the water raised. A good grunter pinned down a sand goby imitation that nearly got christened that day, but unfortunately the line dropped slack as the fish turned after it felt the prick of the hook.
The last fish of the day was the biggest ray of the lot, a dark fish that looked like a delicious helping of chocolate mousse. By then my shirt sleeve was properly wet with saltwater and my trick to remove the hook didn’t go down well. I got shocked five times before the stainless hook popped out of the rubbery lips and I could release the fish. I thanked Jesus for sparing my heart and limped back to shore over the cleared sandbar, the incoming current acting as a superb minesweeper.