This short piece on catch and release fly fishing in our estuaries was published on the Red Bull website:
While studying the giant mud prawn Ewan had a premonition of imminent chaos, that a spotted grunter would eat his Clouser Minnow. I agreed that his olive Clouser could be mistaken for the prawn by a hungry fish, but having had a few bad experiences with South Africa’s infamous spotted grunter on sand flats I had my doubts about that hungry fish being a grunter.
Grunter are like people with rhetorical habits, starting the day with a visit to their regular coffee shop where they order ‘the usual’ savoury muffin, have brief interactions with friends on WhatsApp and then disappear to get on with their day; they seldom stray from the norm, falling for a deceptive opportunity like a flap jack special for breakfast. These fish hunt live prawns and tempting them with ‘juicy’ fake ones (a fly imitating a prawn) is a frustrating experience. Even when they school ‘in the thousands’ on shallow sand flats, the skilled gentleman targeting them may muster less than a hand full in a day. They are known to be difficult, having high standards of course.
Nevertheless, Ewan had made his forecast and we carried on walking upriver to a hole where we knew dusky kob could be taking shelter in the deeper water on low tide. Juvenile kob were hanging out in the deepest area of the channel we intended to fish and Ewan’s fly did its job, giving us the pleasure of watching these mysterious predators swim off after a brief, but exhilarating tug on the long rod.
It was also a great relief that for a change we did not encounter fisherman poaching fish from the river on our return to the parking lot. A tragic sight indeed when more than one undersize dusky kob is killed per angler; seeing this unruly behaviour leaves a sour taste in my mouth even after a good fishing day. Sadly, it’s become a standard affair at south-western Cape estuaries. Somehow some people don’t grasp the importance of catch limits, that keeping more than we should have diminished kob stocks along our coastline and caused a collapse in the fishery at the beginning of the 21 century.
A few weeks later we returned to the estuary and followed our footsteps to the deeper parts of the riverbed. Ewan’s words about the grunter were long forgotten as I started dredging the deep water with one of his Clousers. It was a cool morning and the kob fishing was slow, which was not unusual for the spot.
We positioned ourselves chatting distance apart on the mudbank, discussing how even a dead day ‘on’ the water revitalised the mind from the buzz of the city. The drive, however, is still long to get away for a cast and frantic thoughts of returning home without releasing a fish always lingers in the back of my mind. I brush them off by concentrating harder on the signals I receive from my fly, like an undefined code the sensation through the line informs me whether its gliding across a clump of grass, bumping a rock or touching sand. Then there is always that abrupt bite from a fish; I was hoping for that sudden pull.
Monotonous casting and retrieving may seem pointless to a non-fishing bystander, but it may have therapeutic benefits to the fly angler. The pulse I received that the fly had hooked onto something solid, like a stump, pulled me from my daze. I lifted the rod, expecting that dead, stuck feeling, but the ‘stump’ gave in a little and I realised it could be a fish. The harder I pulled the harder the fish resisted, holding firm in the water and responding with big headshakes to ‘throw’ the fly. This was typical kob behaviour.
Ewan had noticed my rod bending and splashed across the mud towards me to see the fish take off and breach the surface. “What is that, a big kob?” he remarked now standing next to me. We were convinced that I was fighting a decent dusky kob and expecting the fish to give in I pulled hard on the line to land it as quickly as possible.
My confident yanking made the fish sound and the fight became intense, so intense that my wrist started aching from the strain holding the rod up against the powerful downward pull. It was a peculiar tug of war between man and beast which continued for a few minutes. As it tired out and got closer it revealed its true colours. Instead of the platinum flanks of a resident river kob it was pale silver covered in black spots.
To my surprise, Ewan’s premonition had surfaced in the shape of a behemoth spotted grunter. I believe that even though his words were spot on he was still a little startled himself that day, not expecting it to have happened there and that soon.
The fight wasn’t over yet though and the grunter literally kept me on the edge of my spot on the drop off where it continuously dived down into the deep water whenever I lifted its big bony head onto the knee deep bank. When it finally tired and I managed to get a grip on the fish the sheer size of it hit home. This wasn’t just another grunter for me, but in fact a catch of a lifetime.
Ewan stared at the fish and confirmed excitedly, “I knew a grunter would eat that fly.” There was method in the madness after all that his fly could’ve resembled a mud prawn, and that large grunter hoovering up swimming prawns in deep water would also suck it in, mistaking it for a prawn.
We admired the beautifully speckled fish, its scales glowing magenta and cyan in morning light. I removed the barbless hook and Ewan recorded the mysterious catch with a few photographs before we set it free.
The lack of these moments (which is on a par with the inaugural ‘disappearance’ of 70 kg dusky kob in 1990), even on live prawn bait, may reflect badly on fisherman habits to kill their catch and more likely the fact that many still take more than the set quotas? Such rarities are hopefully reminders to think twice before killing a fish and also to pay respect to our legislation protecting natural resources. The effort we put into our fishing trips these days and the amount and quality of fish we catch is a classic case of the law of diminishing returns and a bitter pill to swallow. I believe that a photograph to mark the occasion is much more ethical and fulfilling than shoving a trophy fish into a freezer. Please let them swim.
PS – This fish was weighed and pulled the scale to 13 lb (5.85 kg) on the dot.