Fishing Inhaca Island

Guidelines for Enhancing the Magic

An article written by Mr Derek Thomas and placed in the August 2003 issue of “Africas Original Flyfishing Magazine”.

If someone had to offer me a career change, and said I could choose between becoming either a trainer of rabid dogs, a great chef, or a fly-fishing guide. I know which one I would opt for. It’s quite a simple choice, really.

Firstly, I figure that there’s as much chance of me satisfying the gourmet cravings of any living being as going to the moon. Even my dogs tend to shun me when I open a tin of dog food. Secondly, becoming a flyfishing guide is probably as dangerous as walking into a herd of male elephant bulls in must. And so I guess it would have to be the rabid dog option, perhaps even without the course of injections beforehand.

And if you thought it had to be the guide option, well, let me tell you that in my experience that has got to be one of the hardest jobs to succeed at - and survive. Oh sure, anybody with half a brain, a bit of casting ability and the rudiments of the English language probably figures that becoming a guide is the easiest thing possible, but let me tell you different.

I have, over my twenty years in flyfishing, had the great pleasure, and occasional misfortune, to experience a number of flyfishing guides who left the privacy of their own pursuit of flyfishing to set themselves up as gurus.

Most were great guys who could put you onto fish in almost any circumstances. Others saw their job as being an excuse to show you how they fished. Yet others have been arrogant, forgetting that they were in a service industry. And still others were so casual that you wondered how they ever caught fish when at least some reaction was required when they had a strike.

And so it was a real pleasure to come across a guy who, for me, embodies most of the qualities I consider essential if a guide is to move from the amateur realm into a professional one.

In fact, I would rate Fred Steynberg as one of the top of his profession. You may know him: he lives in Rhodes in the Eastern Cape, spends a huge amount of time putting clients onto good trout and yellowfish; gets involved with the hunting fraternity in the off-season; and, I imagine, after all that he still manages to get home occasionally for supper with his family. Well, often enough for them to at least recognize him.

Anyway, I really got to experience Fred’s skills on a trip to Ithaca Island off the Mocambican coast.

Being blessed with a great flyfishing buddy in John Glennie, who gave me a week’s notice and an offer I couldn’t refuse – despite much soul-searching, gnashing of teeth and wailing children (although, funnily enough, the dogs seemed happy) – we decided we both really needed to get away and do some serious saltwater work. Incidentally, it’s important to call it “work” so no one thinks you’re enjoying yourself.

I phoned up Fred and learned he would be on the island at the same time, had a space to guide us, and all we needed to do was get there.

Thus, a week later, we found ourselves in Maputo, and after a small adventure into this recovering city, and after experiencing a plate of exquisite prawns, we finally boarded a local flight to the island.

The aircraft was adequate, or so it seemed – tow wings, some tyres, and a couple of guys up front with stripes on their shoulders. Or they may have been tattoos. However, I may have been a bit more skittish had I earlier seen the photo which I saw two days later of an identical aircraft upside down at the end of Ithaca’s shortish runway.

As it was, I figured that we’ve all got to go sometime and I would put meeting your end on the way to a fishing trip in the top ten “good” ways to go – probably ranked just after taking a six pounder on dry fly. And, in fairness, that crash was put down to a drunken aviator – our guys certainly seemed totally abstemious.

Thankfully, all went well. The aircraft sort of lumbered into the air, and twelve minutes later sort of lumbered down onto a runway that had seen better days. But the delight of the trip was that we got a fair look at what we could expect, and the view of those clear blue waters left us itching to get the first fly going.

On landing the local taxi arrived, in the form of a general-purpose farm trailer towed by an ageing tractor. But, hell, this is Mocambique, and it’s all part of the adventure, and soon we found ourselves at the local resort hotel. Which was great, except that was not where we were meant to be.

It turned out we were staying next door, in a basic reeded camp run by a couple, Rob and Trish, from Richards Bay. Providing you spend most of your day fishing, the facilities are fine – you get a comfortable bed, clean ablutions, mosquito nets and a fire at night with a good local beer. And you only have to compare their rates of R125 per night, excluding food, to the US$185 of the resort, to know which is a better option.

By the time we got to the camp it was a little late to fish, so we spent time just setting ourselves up and getting a feel of what was on offer. We also learned that all equipment was provided, and I mean all. We didn’t even unpack our rods, and Fred’s view is that whilst you’re welcome to fish with your own stuff, he makes sure that nothing goes wrong with his equipment. So, it’s his rods, his leaders, his knots, his flies.

Perhaps he was spoiling us, but if like us you’re there to learn and maximize fishing time, it’s really great to not have to worry about any aspect of the equipment. Sometimes it was not so good for Fred, though, like the time a big kingfish wrapped the shooting head and running line around a reef and left us with a frayed bit of line to wave at him.

We had chartered an 18ft. duck, which is an ideal platform to fish from – when you can stand up straight, that is. Handling a 12-wt and remaining upright on a bouncy sea is akin to cycling a monocycle with one leg tied around your neck. And remember, you still have to keep the fly from ripping the pontoons, steer it away from fellow occupants and, it that’s not enough, you need to get the fly somewhere way over there – and the wind’s blowing the wrong way.

If I were to select only one rule that all guides should follow, it would be easy: don’t fish while with clients. That one rule embodies an attitude that would seem to be common sense, but it is often missing in other guides I’ve met. If you as a guide fish, you’re not focused for your clients, and guiding – particularly on the salt – means you need full focus, all the time.

Lots of things can go wrong in this potentially hazardous environment, and danger aside, a hit from a big fish happens fast. For reasonably inexperienced guys like me, it’s really reassuring to have a calm attitude when the frenzy erupts.

Fred was always watching the water, constantly seeing things we didn’t, always searching for new opportunities, always ready to assist, always ready to change flies when the action slowed, always thinking. Always service came first, and nothing was ever too much trouble.

Perhaps he’s too conscientious, you may say, but I tell you what, in a new experience like this it’s exactly what you want. I feel one should rather be taught to do it properly when you have a guide, so that when you are on your own you have a good foundation to fall back on.

The hardest expectation a guide has to cope with is the client wanting to get into good fish. It doesn’t matter if the weather’s poor, the seas are high, or there’s nothing moving out there – you still want fish. And the unsaid expectation for the fee you pay is that this is the bottom line: good fish equals good guide, bad fish equals bad guide.

If I were a guide, that would be my major stress factor – the day-after-day drudgery of having to find fish and not having excuses when it doesn’t happen. There are lots of possible excuses, most of which any self respecting flyfisher will already have in his armoury, but having a mass of jellyfish move through your water is one I didn’t know, and you can’t believe how a school of dolphins can make the fish disappear as if they were never there.

However, day after day we did find fish. Sometimes it was slowly working along shallow reefs, casting “upstream”, letting the fast-sinking line go down with lots of backing before commencing a positive retrieve at depth. Other times it was fishing deeper water around a known wreck, passing over the spot again and again until a begrudging hit was had or sulking monsters totally ignored you.

One tended to be on the water fairly early, fishing up until noon or so. Then it was back to camp for a late brunch and a bit of rest during the hot time of day, before setting off again in the early afternoon.

I tend to think that we, as flyfishers, work pretty hard, and one only needs to have a bunch of ski-boat anglers in the same camp to have that belief reinforced.

Without decrying them as a breed (and, of course, this is a generalization), I don’t quite see the enjoyment of trundling around the ocean with outriggers extended, beers in hand (even the skippers’s!), and killing just about everything that is hooked. And I think I sensed among them their initial bemusement at our paltry endeavours, turning to mild respect and then envy as we started to bring in the bigger fish. A good ‘cuda (king mackerel) is a good ‘cuda in anyone’s book, and one caught after fifty million (all right, a slight exaggeration) casts into swirling seas is worth the effort, especially when he’s released back into his domain without the indignity of a gaff through his side. It’s pure magic, really.

And I am beginning to realize, more and more, that flyfishing is really about serving an apprenticeship which never ends. As you notch up more fish, or more species, you sense you can go even further. For me, it’s increasingly about a bonding of spirit, of being in exquisite environments where just occasionally you are treated to amazing sights not normally revealed to mere mortals.

One of these was seeing a shoal of Portuguese sardines rise out of the backline as one fish, desperate but disciplined in their escape from the pursuing gamefish. Another was viewing vast swarms of jellyfish moving below us, guided by unknown currents to uncertain destinations. All creation at its best.

In terms of flyfishing technique, Fred taught me a huge amount too. It’s the sort of stuff you can read about but only really understand when faced with particular situations. Like setting the hook.

As a predominantly freshwater man, most of the time I set the hook by the simple but gently action of lifting the rod. However, with the big marine fish, it’s different, and you have to ensure the hook is set properly with a sharp tug of your line hand. It’s a simple enough theory, but I don’t know how many fish I lost before I started to get it right, because initially it simply went against my instinct after years of trout. And then, once the fish is on properly, all hell breaks loose and the fighting of big fish on slim rods, the palming of reels, and the line control is something else.

However, I guess the luxury of a guide needs to be tempered with an awareness of the cost, for it’s not cheap at face value. Then again, trips to venues like Ithaca would be of far less value if you arrived without knowing the scene in terms of its fishing. You would spend the first few days trying to figure it out relying on local input, and just when you were making progress, it would be time to go home. Within that scenario are also a whole host of misunderstandings and logistics that can go wrong – all of which a good guide can take care of so that he becomes your front man for the whole experience.

I have now been hugely fortunate in being able to fish some top class venues, and boy, do we have them close by. Almost without exception, every one of those experiences has been immeasurably enhanced by having competent people with me, most of whom were intent on ensuring that I had the best experience the money could pay for. If you don’t get the experience you’re looking for the first time you visit a place, you’ll go elsewhere next time. However, if your first visit is successful, you’ll be back, and a good guide’s business can only grow by ensuring his guests have a good time.

My paring advice to you is this: even to an environment where you think you’re at ease, do yourself a favour and get added value for your t by booking a guide, even if only far a day. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn.