Kwanza’s Tarpon - Fred Steynberg

New fly fishing venues and exotic fish species are nowadays chased by adventurous fly fishers across the globe, taking time away from work to escape to destinations offering a diverse culture and a different fishing experience, recuperating and revitalizing weary minds. Angola’s unique fishery has for some time now been explored and fished by conventional anglers. It has only been of late, however, that fly fishers have really discovered the excitement of catching species such as the Giant Tarpon, Giant Threadfin and Dorado, which can all be targeted on fly.

Linecasters client Chris Horne and I, on a visit to the Kwanza River in March this year, had decided to skip lunch back at the lodge on the fourth afternoon of our trip. While working the scum line in the sweltering heat we could not help mentioning the fact that a cold beer and a little siesta would not have been a bad idea. It was the hottest time of the day, just after midday and the Tarpon were not exactly jumping on our flies. The large 22ft rubber duck that we had been using over the last few days had outboard problems, so we decided to use one of the lodges smaller boats as the sea was flat and we generally work very close to shore. Our other fly fishing companions were taking a midday break back at the lodge and our competent skipper Rod Hastier, although not mentioning it, was clearly annoyed with our tenacity.

Chris Horne is not a young buck but he walks the walk and I was again surprised at his strength and perseverance. He has over the last couple of years followed me to destinations that many youngsters a third his age would consider too much of an undertaking, and he always seems to accomplish what he sets out to do.

After an hour or two of hard work we received word that the others were on their return from their siesta. Rod was about to move the boat up-current to drift the line again, when I spotted two tarpon rolling 30 meters off the starboard. The water was clear enough to see the fish moving towards the bobbing boat, but as they slowly swam closer, it became apparent that there were not only two tarpon but a pod of at least 15 fish of between 15 and 40 kg’s. Chris had to reposition but I could immediately fire a cast in front of the first fish that rolled and he accepted the offering after following it for a mere meter or two. All hell brakes loose when you hook a tarpon on fly. The chaos is accentuated by the aerobatic jump of the fish as it speeds off at a mind blowing pace. Those who have had the opportunity to be in this situation will agree that it must be one of the most out-of-control moments you will ever experience in your fly fishing career. All that you have read and learned about hooking and fighting Giant Tarpon will be forgotten unless you have experience it many times before. As I set the hook on the tarpon it leaped straight out of the water in full view, and knowing that the fish was one of the smaller specimens of about 40lbs and solidly hooked I shouted to Chris who was now in a ready position to cast ahead of the pod. Chris’ first presentation and about fourth or fifth retrieve produced a solid take that pulled his 12 weight horizontal as the fish took off without clearing the water. Once under control Chris made sure that the hook was set solid and the fish, weighing approximately 100-130 lbs cleared the water. We had sight-fished to tarpon and had a double hook-up, possibly the first to do so off the African coast. I had my ‘baby’ tarpon of 38lbs subdued relatively soon, but Chris’ fish, which was much larger, had other ideas and only after 40 minutes did we managed to leader the magnificent fish after a fight that could have taken a lesser man a fair amount longer.

Our fellow intrepid anglers arrived on the seen while we were tusseling the two tarpons. After landing his tarpon, Chris decided to take the rest of the afternoon off and to act as a spotter on the bigger boat. Chris and Zulch Conradi swapped boats and we all continued fishing the line with the two boats difting a couple of hundred meters apart. An hour later Carlos, the skipper of the 27 ft Nova Cat, radioed in and announced that Matt Ferry had hooked into a monster fish. Curiously Rod motored the smaller boat across so that we could have a closer look and assist where possible. Looking ahead we saw the fish jump and tail-walk 200m or more from the boat in action. We immediately realized that this could be a fish of a lifetime and followed well clear of the fight. The aerial display of this tarpon, almost 2m long, shaking  violently in midair with only the tip of the tail touching the water, is a picture forever imprinted in my mind.

An hour into the fight the fish stopped taking long runs and leaps and Rod could manoeuvre the smaller boat alongside the Cat so that I could board and assist with the landing. Matt fought the fish as well as any, and seemed surprisingly relaxed as he now held the fish 50-70m from the boat, not allowing his rod a moments’ rest. He was armed with a 12 weight rod and a Shilton SL-7 reel with an intermediate line together with 350m of 50lb braided backing.

Giant Tarpon have no teeth but instead have possibly the hardest, roughest jaw bone of all the sporting fish in the ocean. Setting the hook into this bony jaw is the first problem and this difficult procedure has lost more tarpon at the first jump than has ever been landed. The second problem is the rough outer jaw and gill plate that will chafe trough any inferior monofilament in a long fight. We used 100 - 130lb fluoro-carbon tippet, thin enough to not scare the fish from the fly, but it’s abrasive ability is of superior quality.   

After I changed boats and assessed the situation I realized that Matt’s fight was far from over. The fish was now idling alongside the boat using its weight to lean against the pressure exerted by Matt. Every couple of minutes in the second half of the fight the giant would slowly surface, stick his big prehistoric head out of the water and suck in a gulp of air. Tarpon have a gill and lung breathing function allowing them to gulp air in fresh water or in stressful situations such as this. The fresh air allowed the fish renewed energy and the fight seemed endless. An hour and 45 minutes after hook-up both Matt and the tarpon were showing serious signs of exhaustion, Matt possibly wetter than the fish. Carlos and I leaned overboard to leader and land the fish that seemed way too large to be subdued with on fly fishing tackle. After measuring the fish (188cm length and girth 135cm) it took us another half an hour to revive it and at one stage both Matt and Carlos joined the fish in the water to ensure success.

Matt Ferrey had hooked and landed, off the Angolan coastline, one of the biggest tarpon ever caught on fly. What an amazing experience for all of us!

That night the group sat on the deck of the restaurant overlooking the Kwanza River and debated the actual size of the fish. According to the international slide scale, the fish should weigh in at 105 kg’s (around 230 lbs) but the exact size of the fish didn’t matter to us, for us it was about the pure manner in which is was caught and released back into the system.  Hopefully to fight another battle on another day with some lucky fly fisherman who can also appreciated the beauty, strength and splendor of this awesome species.

The peak period for hooking Tarpon is from December – March but they have been caught before and after this period.  All it takes to get to the finest tarpon destination off the African coastline, is a couple of hours flight to Luanda and from there the lodge organizes for us to be fetched and taken 60km south. This is where the Kwanza River, apparently Africa’s fourth longest river, enters the Atlantic Ocean. Rico Saco and partner Bruce Bennett have established a very successful lodge on the bank of the Kwanza just before it enters the sea. The lodge has a large entertainment area and restaurant that caters for both local and international clients and is well managed by Manny.

Comfortable, air-conditioned, part log cabins, either overlook the river on the one side, or the sea on the other, and are a welcoming relief for exhausted anglers, offering a break from the extremely hot and humid conditions. The food is tasty and filling, the beer cold, and a friendly smile meets everyone who visits the lodge.

At present a 22 ft Gemini, 27 ft Nova Cat and a couple of smaller boats are available for angling purposes but the lodge plans to have 5 new, fully equipped Nova Cat available by end October 2008.

It is indeed hard to believe that Giant Tarpon, the fish that haunts the dreams of some of the fly fishing greats of the world, can be caught off our African coast. The Tarpon that congregate around some of the estuaries of the Angolan coast grow in excess of 240 lbs, as large as the average Springbuck rugby player in the last world cup, but possibly leaner and meaner. To hook a tarpon anywhere is hard work, fighting and landing these silver giants on fly fishing outfits can be taxing on even the most prepared and experienced fly fishers.

For more info and guided trips to the Kwanza email Linecasters at fred@linecasters.co.za or rico@aasafaris.com

Insert provided by Linecasters client Matthew Ferry

My Cuanza Tarpon

A sprinkling of petrified baitfish adjacent to the boat indicated that something was causing concern to the lower occupants of the food chain. My cast was about 15m out and on a slow retrieve when there was a light twitch on the line, followed by a violent wrench as the surprised tarpon changed direction and accelerated away from the (more) surprised fly fisherman. Fred’s textbook description of how to strike these fish was meaningless in the moment. In the melee all I could do was hold on and try to avoid getting cut to shreds as in a flash the remaining line and then the backing shot through my hand and the guides… She tail walked close to the boat, bringing whoops and expletives from John Lunchbox Lynch and Carlos our skipper (and disbelief from me when we realized her size), then headed for the horizon, porpoising a couple of times seemingly to gulp air, apparently unaffected by the drag. I continuously tightened up the drag, with the knowledge that the 300m of 50lb backing was disappearing fast. We chased her in the boat and regained some backing, which was the beginning of a physical fight that lasted an hour and 45 minutes. Eventually we had her subdued and spent a while measuring her. I doubt I’ll ever have another fly fishing experience charged with so much emotion and adrenaline, not least of which was the elation at seeing her swim off into the clear water. Farewell, my lady tarpon.