If you look at a map of Gabon we’re on the southern coast exactly at the border of Loango National Park. It’s a long way from Idaho and takes a few days to adjust to the time change. Because of this I slept like garbage last night. It was miserable waking up at 4:15 AM. But then I realized I was fly fishing in Gabon and filled my Yeti tumbler with coffee and stimulated my brain on the 20-minute boat ride to the mouth of the estuary where we fished last night.
It was plenty dark when we arrived. The winds were soft and the surf and waves easy to handle. Today I brought my flimsy stripping basket and it made line control for casting slightly easier. The skies were full of puffy tropical clouds and moon and stars poked through every hole. By the time I got done being the weatherman John Travis hooked up.
John got his fly on the water first and several casts in his reel started screaming and saw him against the moonlight backing up the beach. He had a tremendous fish pulling him around and things looked hectic. Next we heard the splashes out in the darkness. John had a tarpon on.
Landing a tarpon on a fly from a flats boat can be a chore for two guys working together. Hooking and landing one off the beach here in Gabon seems impossible especially when you consider the ripping currents and a reef not far from where we cast. But stronger than ever fly rods, reels and lines make the once impossible now possible.
Furthermore, the monsters we’re after aren’t likely stopped on traditional leader systems of class tippet breaking strengths of 20lb. Certainly not a tarpon when there’s a rocky reef near. I’ve learned from my African friends to fish straight 80lb Flouro. This system stirs alarm with old-timers that feel the leader “must” have a weaker breaking point than the fly line and backing. No doubt they’re correct and I emphasized this in my Saltwater Fly Fishing Book. But times change and the modern philosophy is use heavy tippet and hold the fish close so he never reaches the backing and count on the newer stronger than ever cores of fly lines not to break.
Tourette Fishing carefully selected the anglers for this fly fishing exploratory trip to Gabon. John wasn’t only fishing straight 80lb tippet but he knows all the tricks to break a tarpons spirit fast. He had his fish on the beach in a notable ten minutes. The quick battle was a sight to behold!
There was more action as well. As we photographed Johns tarpon Conrad Botes hooked another but lost him after several jumps. As he was reeling in to check over the rig he hooked and landed a longfin jack and Mike LaSota beached a nice jack as well. As for me, I better put down the camera and get my game face on soon.
By 7 AM the tide was useless for fishing the estuary mouth. Mark Murray knew 7 was the end of it so he had a plan and we paired up in the boats and headed in the estuary to fish for snapper and jack. I picked up my 9-weight Jungle Rod and heaved some Clouser’s at the mangroves from the front while Mike did the same from the back.
There was action on almost every cast with snappers and grunter. I caught a new species called the mangrove jack. He’s a snapper not a jack. What’s nice about this catch for me is that I lost a huge one of these in Sudan in 2014 right as I reached for him. Finally, I can add one of the handsome fellas to my list.
I also added the Guinean Barracuda (Sphyraena afra) to my species list. This one’s a baby but the species gets gigantic. Unfortunately, the aggressive fish have made themselves too vulnerable in the area and the big boys are rare these days. I noticed the difference from other cuda species immediately with all the beautiful colors on this fishes back.
We packed in the morning session around 11 and headed for camp for lunch and beers. I adjusted my beach set up while Mike napped and the South Africans tied flies. The fun breather lasted until 4 PM when we left for the evening session during prime tide.
There’s a ton of wildlife in this area including lowland gorillas and chimpanzees. I can’t tell you how cool seeing one of these primates would be. The chances are slim though because they’re wild and have more jungle to hide in than anywhere. There have been lots of elephants however enjoying the estuary and we saw several on the boat ride to the fishing tonight. These are a smaller African species called the forest elephants. Last night we had two walk right out on the beach while fishing.
It was nice on the beach at the mouth of the estuary. There were a few rolling tarpon we couldn’t reach and Garth Wellman took down this enormous longfin jack. But this brute was our only fish in daylight. Things got so slow that we considered calling it an early night until Mark assured us after dark is the best time for everyone’s dream fish for the trip, the giant African threadfin.
It was dark before 7 and that’s when the relentless blind casting began. Six of us lined the beach around a point where the water rushes past in the dropping tide. Mark feels the giant African threadfin are mostly deep and far from the beach except every once in a while they move close and this is the spot. The problem is keeping a fly down deep in the zone for more than a few seconds. The tidal current rips so hard that even with my 450 grain Sonar sink fly line the fly gets swung back to the surface too fast. I envision literally needing to bump a threadfin in the nose in those short seconds much like hitting the lottery.
My technique was cast as long as I could which isn’t far with a 450 grain from a beach at night. Then mend some slack line out as the system sinks. The second I felt the current swing against my fly line I made a strip then fed it back out. Then another and another but by the time there was hope for a fourth strip and feed my fly was slamming into the beach down current. You can see how short a time the fly is in the zone.
If you read this blog however, you know I’m a believer and my persistence is that of an insane man. I traveled 9,000 miles for a threadfin and dang it I’m not going home without a fight. At 9 PM, two solid hours of relentless casting in the dark began to wear on me. It was so black I simply stared at the opening of my stripping basket being sure my strips of line made it in there for a productive next cast. Honestly, I was falling asleep standing up in thigh deep water.
Forty feet away I could make out the silhouette of John and slightly further I could see Conrad. Beyond them but too dark to see was Arno and Garth. Mike was on his own mission tonight somewhere searching for less surf to contend with. I made a deal with myself to be the last guy to call it quits but dang everyone was fishing hard. At last, I could hear John reeling in followed by Conrad. Their silhouettes met and up the beach they went. Then Arno and Garth met them – the night was coming to an end.
I told myself ten more casts, something I’ve been doing at the end of every hard fishing day since I was a kid. On my third cast my heavy fly got hit with the strangest thump I’ve ever felt from a fish in my life. So strange that at first I wasn’t sure it was a fish. But after a good strip set and a lift of the rod, without any doubt it was a fish. The strange thump was followed by heavy and violent headshakes. The kind that sever a 40lb tippet. The kind of power that if you’re squeezing your rod to tight the thrust could break your wrist (very few anglers have any idea what I’m talking about but I promise you it’s true). I just knew and yelled “threadfin on!”
As the guys came around to see the fight, the fish steadily cleared my reel of fly line. I was using my Scientific Angler demo reel – not exactly my first choice but it was too late to second guess my decision. SA lined the attractive reel with the 450 grain Sonar at the factory to help me save time packing. The run was powerful yet not speedy and my drag was tight and my backing crackled off the reel in a strange sound. Undoubtedly the fish had size. By now some of the guys suggested big snapper while others a jack, both of which I am more than familiar with their fights. I kept saying, “No. This is a threadfin”.
The hard pulling fish never went more than about fifty feet in the backing. He fought back and forth around this distance for a good five minutes. Then he started to give up. It was a huge relief when my fly line returned to the reel but it took another five minutes to get in my running line and finally see the sinking head of the line.
Ten minutes in the fish had taken me a hundred yards down the beach. Bad for me was here the surf was big and the beach was steep. I made my first attempt to surf him in on the beach but the lip at the sand drop was too much. The big fish, although tired now, anchored himself in the trough. Each time a big wave came I timed it to lift hard and although the first few tries failed I could feel him start to budge.
The anticipation for everyone was no less than thrilling. While I still knew I had a threadfin the South Africans weren’t so sure. Finally, the wave I needed came just as the fish let go of bottom. I lifted and felt him give and with my rod over my shoulder pointed towards the sea I ran up the beach. The lunker of a fish rode the wave perfectly and when it receded the fish stayed on his side on the beach. A giant African threadfin on the fly off the beach!
Garth stood over the mighty threadfin to be sure the next wave didn’t release him. I ran down to see my prize and was in instant awe. This giant African threadfin was a giant! At first I could hardly handle him. His strength pushed me away twice before I finally got my hands under him enough to lift. He was easily 40lbs!
I’d have thought differently but Mark was quick to announce that threadfin are delicate and our photos session must take place fast. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt this magnificent creature any more so I lifted for a couple shots then John pulled the fly and I ran him down to the water. Waves crushed me at the edge of the beach drop but I held my breath and enjoyed the power of the threadfin one last time as he yanked himself away with one swift kick of his massive tail. Mission accomplished!
We stayed fishing on the beach until 11:30 PM. While I relaxed shooting the bull with Mark most of the time I did put in a few more casts that led to something quite humorous. My unlit headlamp was tight over my Yeti ball cap. It was uncomfortably tight and I continued to adjust my hat. Eventually I forgot the headlamp was there and ripped my hat off to shake it around to make it more comfortable and off went my headlamp out to sea. First full night – headlamp gone. Not good.
A full ten minutes later I saw a red light flash off the drop-off far down the beach. It didn’t register with my spinning mind at first but the second time it flashed I charged the direction. It kept going off but each flash of red I got closer till finally I lunged and dove and miraculously retrieved my lamp. I forgot to take off my hat though and in trade for the lamp I lost my Yeti hat.
While my dumb moves were stacking up it seemed like a good trade – the hat for a lamp (even though it’s not waterproof and may not ever work again). Then low and behold when we finally gave it up for the night, John came up the beach with my Yeti hat in hand. It washed up against his feet in the blackness of the ocean. Tonight was indeed my lucky night!
There was one last stellar fish taken after the threadfin and that was a cubera snapper by Conrad. The big fish for sure cruise the beach after dark. It’s just that tonight there were not many and it was a lot of hard work to capture what we did. We returned to camp for a very late night of beers and dinner. We made it to bed slightly before 1 AM and Mark is knocking on our doors at 4:30. This is going to be one of those “hardest core” weeks that I thrive on!
A special thanks to my friends of Tourette Fishing – Fight it in Africa for inviting me on this unreal trip!