The first time I saw a Cape gurnard that was caught on fly was on Peter Coetzee’s old site, Born to Fly Fish. I got a few on bait, hand-lining offshore at Kleinmond in my primary school years, but never thought that one would actually manage to get them on fly tackle. These are said to be deep water fish, generally found in 10 m of water and deeper (up to almost 400 m) and since we caught them on reefs from boats far out at sea it didn’t seem likely to target with a fly line.
That was until I saw the photo of Pete cradling the colourful critter on a West Coast beach. I wanted one, on fly!
Fishing sandy drop offs with a sinking line and weed-less crabs, all I could interest in my offerings were big cuttlefish. They’d chase after the red crab from the dark depths and then try get a mouth-full by folding their tentacles around it. The resistance was subtle, like a careful bite from a sneaky fish; I suspected gurnards until I saw the squid.
Sometimes, I hauled out big blacktail from the deep holes, but never a gurnard. At the time of my trial and error trips I met Jimmy Eagleton. When I told him about my interest in gurnard he replied that he had also caught one from shore on a crab pattern. Then I tried even harder, since I realised that Pete’s fish wasn’t a fluke, but alas, even my luck with blacktail dried up and nothing materialised from the many trips to sea.
I guess I would’ve started to venture out again this winter to try my luck on catching a gurnard, but a well-timed phone call from Jimmy saved me precious fishing hours (there simply isn’t much spare time when you have a toddler at home). He had found the place where a gurnard was not a possibility, but guaranteed.
Sceptic about his words over the phone, I joined him on his boat for a short run to the middle of a big bay. He dropped anchor and encouraged me to cast out the lead-core line. We were about to fish the bottom in eight meters of water. The first gurnard came quickly, but dropped off the hook as I tried to lift it into the boat. The fish was hooked as I lifted the crustacean imitation off the bottom. This happened to me twice more in an hour’s fishing, in which time Jimmy boated about three lovely fish. The last fish I had lost took the fly just under the boat though and Jimmy saw others following it around before it came off.
I changed to my favourite fly, a sparse Clouser and started a slow, jerky retrieve about 4 m deep. The takes came quickly and I landed my first fish. Ten minutes later and two more in the boat we realised that the shoal of gurnards were suspended in the thermocline.
We figured out that these fish were after zooplankton swimming around in mid-water and started catching gurnard more frequently and at times on every cast. Jimmy even caught the biggest fish of the day by sight. Incredible! A fish I once disregarded as a likely fly target, and then considered a rarity was suddenly child’s play.
It was a bizarre outing, casting a 5 weight out at sea, bringing to hand a pretty gurnard, then a sip of Coke and then another gurnard. I admired every fish, the lunar-like pectorals, space craft head and nebula eyes. The wind pushed us towards the open ocean, the anchor not finding purchase on the sand, and while we must have travelled about five hundred meters across green that seemed eternal we caught gurnard as far as we went.
Before you judge us by our ‘taste’ in fish, there’s something stranger than gurnard swimming in the same bay we fished. Rumour has it that elephant sharks also hunt in that area and while the locals love catching them for their tasty meat, we’d simply like to have a crack at them on fly. After all, nothing seems impossible these days?