Into the Deep Blue … Marine Safaris visits St Lazarus Banks and the Quirimba Archipelago.

Article by: Fred Steynberg

During February, I accompanied a group of fly fishermen to Pemba and St Lazarus Banks, but unfortunately only spent a day and a half on the Banks owing to unforeseen problems.  It was, however, long enough to give me a good indication of which fish species make this magnificent 200km underwater “mountain” their home.  After much anticipation I finally had an opportunity to return in August this year.  We caught our fill of yellowfin tuna, rainbow runner, bluefin kingfish, kakaap and many other fish during the last three days there.

The appearance of massive quantities of brown mantis shrimp brought shoals of fish to the surface and they could be heard feeding like the sound of multiple surf breaks.  We sight-fished and hooked yellowfin of up to 100lb, but managed to land (and release) only four that were around the 20lb – 30lb mark – good fish by any measure on a fly rod.  If anyone had told me that there would be a chance to sight-fish and hook large yellowfin tuna on fly, I would’ve seriously doubted their integrity.  On this trip, however, we were able to cast a fly closely imitating the mantis shrimp to a shoal of feeding fish and see a single fish break from the pack.  The fish would follow the fly for only a meter of two, take it and, at the strike, speed off into the depths at a blistering pace.  One of the yellowfin we hooked on a 14-wt weighed about 25lb and ran a good 250m before I could turn it.

It was mid-August and yet the Mozambican sun was relentless as our tender drifted over the drop-off of St Lazarus Banks.  With only a couple of sunlight hours left on our last day on the Banks, we were all eager for a chance to tussle with and land a trophy giant kingfish of a dogtooth tuna.  Winter, however, is not a good time to target giant kingfish, as most of them move off to greener pastures, leaving only the odd lunker to rule the Banks.  Earlier that day we had taken cover from the sweltering heat and prepared ourselves for our final onslaught.

After lunch I set up the vice on deck of the mothership and tied three #6/0 Black Whistler, on for each of us.  We checked and repaired our terminal tackle, ensuring that there were no weak points that could ruin our final chance – although of course it can happen that a fish totally outmatching your tackle will take your fly, and nothing can prepare you for that moment.  Greg Horn of Marine Safaris accompanied us on the trip and was the skipper on our tender.  We had learnt to trust his judgment as he showed consistent accuracy on the drop-offs and water depths.  He had scuba-dived a large portion of the Banks and had waypoints marking the spots where he had sighted fish congregating.  As darkness crept closer, silence fell over the tender.  All that could be heard was the stripping sound of the running lines being retrieved through the rod guides and the beep from the echo-sounder indicating fish somewhere below the boat.  Each of us was left to his own thoughts – thoughts that did not venture too far from each positive strip and the chance of a fish pouncing the fly.  The sun eventually dimmed to a low glow and we reverted to our Black Whistlers which are better suited to low light conditions.  Brett Hall was the first to attract something big.  I reeled in my line to assist and advise, but by that time the hook had somehow pulled, after an out-of-control dash of almost 100m.  We continued our search, casting upcurrent and letting the line sink as deep as possible before retrieving with long, positive strips.

The sun was about to make its landing on the horizon when my line suddenly stopped dead.  I instinctively struck, simultaneously setting the hook and putting a serious arch into the 14-wt.  The fish fought in close proximity to where it had taken the fly, making short 10 – 20m bursts.  I imagined it to be a kingfish of sorts because of its fighting tactics, but was surprised to see it give in after a less than ten-minute tussle.  Only once the fish had given us a side-on view close to the surface did we relies the prize was a magnificent black kingfish (Caranx lugubris).  Clint Mansfield did the honors and, with hands safe in gloves, tailed the fish that pulled the BogaGrop to 21lb.

Time was running out and, although we had caught this magnificent specimen, we felt we still had a chance of hooking something bigger.  The fish was weighed, photographed and revived while Greg turned the tender’s nose towards the drop-off for our last drift of the day.  Clint’s hit came within minutes.  Brett and I, after hearing the reel scream and seeing the bend on his 14-wt, reeled in our lines to assist.  Clint had managed to guide the loose line that was lying on the deck safely through the rod guides and on to the reel as the fish sped away, and was now trying to control the reel with the full palm of this hand.  The reel suddenly looked very low in the 500m, 50lb backing we had spooled on and I advised Clint to direct more pressure onto the fish through the rod.  After the fish had taken about 300m of backing, it paused for the first time and I knew the battle was half won.  Clint went onto his knees and was threatening to pontoon his rod for support, but scrapped the idea after verbal abuse form the rest of us.  A hundred things can go wrong if you are fighting a fish from a tender.  Sitting or kneeling and supporting the rod on any part of the tender makes for a less mobile position and is asking for trouble, especially fighting a fish as powerful as this one.

Half an hour later, I could see that both angler and fish were taking serous strain.  Clint started retrieving meter after meter of backing while the fish started a side-on upward spiral.  We had stopped speculating half an hour earlier about the identity of the monster – all we were now interested in was landing it.  The leader and fish suddenly appeared out of nowhere and I dived for the tail.  With adrenaline pumping, I pulled a magnificent 65lb dogtooth tuna onto the pontoon.  It was not clear who was the most excited about the catch, Clint or the rest of us.  It didn’t matter, it was a trophy caught by a man who had worked hard for it and deserved every pound of it.

Sight-fishing the flats around and islands of the Quirimba Archipelago

Back on the mothership after our last eventful day fishing on the Banks, we got ready for the night’s sailing back to the Quirimba Archipelago.  We sailed throughout the night, with the crew taking turns on watch as the yacht followed its programmed, auto-piloted course back to the islands and were awakened the following morning by the sound of the anchor being dropped in a sheltered bay.  It was a new day with a new experience awaiting us.  A number of the islands around the Quirimba Archipelago have been bought by private entities and are now protected from uncontrolled fishing with gillnets and the stripping of marine life by subsistence fishermen.  The word is that fish have begun to move back onto the flats, especially fish like the highly sensitive and skittish bonefish (Albula vulpes).  These islands also have a number of channels and drop-offs which support a healthy population of kingfish, queenfish, king mackerel, barracuda and so on.

On this specific day we had a run or two over the drop-offs, but the wind did not allow us to drift at the desired speed, inhibiting our lines from sinking to the correct depth, so we were forced to focus our attention on fishing the flats.  Some of the flats around these islands extend for almost 300m, with clear, emerald-green waters and white sandy bottoms.  Feeding fish can be spotted from quite some distance away.  With our 9-wts, intermediate lines and a variety of Charlies and smaller Clouseres, we stood on the tender at first and cast to large threespot pompano, garfish of over a meter long and huge barracuda.  Wading knee to waist deep is also a productive option in this area, allowing a fly angler to get within casting distance of some of the more elusive and skittish fish.  Unfortunately, by the time we had found hangouts of the bonefish the high tide had almost reached its mark on the shoreline, allowing us only a couple of casts to non-feeding fish.  It was, however, satisfying to see these awesome creatures and know that they have returned to their rightful feeding grounds.

The sandspits and channels around this area offer enormous possibilities in the event of trips to St Lazarus being cancelled, owing to bad weather conditions.  Summer months will see large predatory fish cruise the drop-offs and even venture into the shallows to feed on shoals of juvenile or schooling fish.  In February this year we fished on of these sandspits, hooking into fish on almost every second cast.  Using 9 – 10-wt outfits, we hooked mainly brassy, big eye and yellowfin kingfish of 5 – 6lb.  We also saw shoals of small baitfish on the surface of waters running to the depths of 7 – 15m.  With large predatory fish ambushing them, they had been forced into pockets and could be seen all around.  We caught GTs up to 14lb, large bluefin kingfish, kakaap, and big needle fin queenfish around these shoals. 

Potentially the best blue water fishing in Southern Africa

During these two trips we caught massive quantities of bohar snapper, mata-hari, kakaap, rainbow runner and bluefin kingfish.  Among this lot we hooded GTs of 12 – 30lb, yellowfin tuna, dogtooth tuna, black kingfish swallowtail rock cod and even a flying fish which grabbed a large Clouser but gave no resistance on a 12-wt rod!  Species we failed to attract on these trips – but which are in abundance on the Banks – where wahoo, king mackerel, marlin, brindle bass, greater barracuda and, in the shallower waters en route to the Banks, sailfish.  According to the old commercial fishermen in the area, there is also a healthy population of broadbill, buy in my opinion this is not a targetable fly fishing species.

Yacht Walkerbout’s crew

Living aboard for seven days with eight clients, all with different ideas on how they want to spend their fly fishing excursion, can be tough and, if not handled correctly, disastrous.  A live-aboard fly fishing charter needs to be fully equipped and provide exactly what fly fishermen require.  Marine Safaris has mastered this, having identified a top-class venue with a live-aboard yacht to match.  Walkabout is not only one of the best-equipped yachts I have been on, it also has a very special team onboard.  I was amazed at the professional adeptness of the skipper and the hostess.  Skipper Brendan Held is an obvious choice for the job, having previously worded on one of the few US$110-million super-yachts around Florida where impeccable service is standard.  Susan Cocker, the yacht’s hostess and chef, complements her skipper’s high standards with cuisine and service that are a match for many an elite restaurant.  We were up at 4:30am each morning to prepare for the day’s fishing only to find Susan ready with coffee and freshly baked scones and muffins.

About Walkabout

Walkabout is a 15.2m Voyage 500 catamaran of Alexander Simmons design with an 8.3m beam and 1.2m draft.  The two 52hp engines are mounted in independent engine rooms to isolate the noise and can push the yacht to a maximum speed of seven knots (without the sails).  The two 8.5KWA Ficher-Panda generators are mounted in soundproof cabinets.  The yacht has onboard the following tenders equipment for the use of fly anglers: a 4.5m hard-bottom inflatable duck with a 50hp Yamaha motor, safety gear, handheld GPS, VHF radio and mounted echo-sounder, as well as three 3.6m inflatable rubber ducks equipped with 15hp Yamaha motors, safety gear, handheld GPS and VHF radios.

Yacht Walkabout was designed as a luxury charter vessel and has four en suite queen-sized guest cabins with air conditioners.  The hatches are tinted and portholes offer fresh sea breezes and clear views when the boat is not cruising.  The bedding is spotless and fresh towels are provided daily.  Each room is fitted with its own CD player.  The recreation area on the upper level, with its large saloon area, is built to optimize living space and is equipped with a TV, VCR and CD player.  The yacht boasts a wide selection of videos and CDs ranging in taste from 1950s hits to the latest teeth-grinding numbers as well as the more appropriate Café del Mar.  The galley provides the means for excellent service: a microwave and oven, two freezers, and a fridge and icemaker.