Author: Craig Thomassen (page 1 of 2)

Transkei Fishing Heaven

Those that know me, know that my favourite form of fishing is estuary fishing. If I had to be even more specific, then I would say Transkei estuary fishing.

In my experience there are few places as tranquil to fish, as a Transkei estuary. I value any time spent on these beautiful rivers, soaking up the peace, enjoying the sounds of bird calls, the magnificent scenery and of course hunting a variety of elusive, predatory fish.

I have fished many of the Transkei rivers over the years, both blind rivers and those that are open to the sea. These rivers are generally only navigable by boat for a relatively short stretch, before becoming too shallow to continue. The fish are also confined to a few kilometres of river, which can be explored with a small boat and a fishing rod. This means that you can explore the entire system quite easily over the course of a few days.

I have been seeing posts from Nqabara Eco River Lodge on social media over the last few years, and always pay attention, as this is one of the river systems that I have wanted to explore for some time. So when I was recently invited to come and stay at the lodge and check out the fishing potential, I didn’t hesitate to accept.

What makes Nqabara Eco River Lodge different to other Transkei destinations?

Firstly the lodge is a community project. The local community is a shareholder in the lodge, so it gets a share of profits, which go into a community trust account. What this means is that locals see the positives of lodge in the area, and are courteous and pleasant when encountering lodge guests on the beach or river.

Secondly, being an Eco lodge, it has a reduced carbon footprint. It is off the grid in that it makes use of solar power and gas. It collects its own rainwater, recycles its trash and it grows organic vegetables on the property.

What also excites me is the fact that the system has not one, but two rivers, which share a common mouth in front of the lodge. The two rivers are quite different, with the Nqabarana being small and intimate. A much shorter river, ideal for quick sessions, when time is short.
The Nqabara river is both longer, and larger than the Nqabarana in terms of water volume, with a big dropoff close to the mouth, some deep holes and a series of productive pools and channels in the upper reaches of the river.

A quick look on Google Earth shows the structure and form of the rivers, and gives a clear idea of the excellent fishing potential on offer. While I am going to concentrate on the river fishing in this article, it must be noted that the surf at the mouth and along the beach also has some excellent fishing on offer, including spinning for kob and casting baits for edible species such as bronze bream, blacktail, black and white musselcracker and pignose grunter.

When preparing for my visit I kept in contact with Pierre Swartz, who manages the lodge and guides there as well. He kept me informed of weather conditions, water temperatures and what the fishing was doing during the build up to our trip. This was helpful, and gave me peace of mind that conditions were looking good and we were going to have a decent chance at some classic estuary fishing.

It was an eight hour drive from Pennington on the KZN South Coast, going through Kokstad and Umtata, then turning off at Dutywa and making our way towards the coast. I really enjoy driving through the rural Transkei, the huts on the hills are familiar, though they now have Eskom lines and Jo-Jo tanks. The pigs, goats, sheep, donkeys and cattle love standing in the road. People live slowly and seem content, waving and smiling at strangers in passing cars.

The last 40km to the lodge, from Willowvale, took an hour as it is dirt. The road was in pretty good shape and, though we were travelling in a 4×4, would be easily passable in a normal sedan.

On our first morning we were up at 4am, and headed for the launch area before it started getting light. While we packed the boat we heard a lot of splashes on the surface, with numerous chases and smashes visible in the path of moonlight laid down upon the water. I started off casting a surface lure, a Berkley J-Walker, and retrieving it with a zig-zagging ‘walk the dog’ action. I had a fish smash at the lure, with a big splash, but sadly it did not connect. As the sky lightened, we were able to appreciate the amount of predator activity, seeing many mullet streaking along the surface, creating bow waves, as well as smashes, with mullet taking to the air in panicked flight.

I had a few follows on my lure, and a bump on my suspending stick bait, before hooking up a bartail gurnard over a shallow bank. Sadly the hook pulled before I could land the fish. The activity in the area started to taper off as the light brightened, so we decided to make our way upriver and check out the potential of the upper reaches.

Numerous startled mullet jumped high into the air behind the boat as we carved our way up the sweeping bends of the river. The surface was glassy and smooth and mangrove lined mud banks gave way to forests and high cliffs, where the water started to look darker and more mysterious. We started fishing just past an island, along some boulders. I started off casting a 7.2cm Sebile suspending Stick Shadd up close to the rocks and giving it some small twitches. I saw the muted flash as a river snapper rolled and inhaled my lure. I set the hook and the fish started running around, looking for something to cut me off on or wrap me up in. I was using very light tackle. The leader was 14lb fluoro, that I had put on for yellowfish on my previous trip, not really ideal for hard fighting snapper, but I pressured him as hard as I could, and despite him making an attempt to wrap the line up in some branches, I was lucky enough to get him out. A decent fish of around 1.5kg, and a great way to start the trip.

It was beautiful up there, with big cliffs and spectacular forests. The air was filled with the sounds of bird calls, amongst others; trumpeter hornbill, tambourine dove, black headed oriole, southern boubou. We saw some hamerkop nests, as well as a juvenile gymnogene, which called a lot and flew about, eventually landing on a nest in a big tree. A pair of lanner falcons took off from the cliff and flew around high above us, hassling a jackal buzzard. We also saw a stealthy finfoot, which crept under some bushes and out of the water when we got close. We flushed a white backed night heron from his hidden perch over the water. Half collared, mangrove, pied and giant kingfishers seemed to be everywhere as well as a number of pairs of fish eagles. There were lots of big cycads growing out of the kranzes, along with aloes and euphorbias.

We came back to the lodge and had a short break between 11am and 12.30am, then headed across the river to the north bank at the mouth, passing the obligatory cattle on the beach as we walked. There is a rock ledge on the north bank, where we stood and cast paddletails across the mouth, working them through the channel. The water looked good, with small waves and some sand churned up, but we had no bites.

We went back to the lodge and took another break, then headed out to the dropoff in the big river at around 5pm. We fished there until about 8pm. There was a lot of activity after the sun went down, with mullet and prawns being chased and smashed on the surface. Pierre landed a kob on his bucktail, probably around 2kg, and I lost a small one next to the boat on paddletail. The hook pulled before we could land him.

It was a beautiful evening, with plenty of stars and we could see the Southern Cross clearly. The sound of fiery necked nightjars calling came across the water, punctuated by splashes and gulps of feeding fish.

We were up at 4am again the next morning and walked down to the boat, which was tied to a mangrove near the lodge. We went to the drop off and fished off the sand bank, with the boat anchored nearby. We had no touches, despite the fact that there was a lot of activity, especially early on, with mullet and shrimp getting smashed on the surface. Pierre had to leave us there, as he needed to go into Willowvale to get some supplies for the lodge.

I took the boat upriver, watching chases and smashes up ahead of us as we drove. The morning was calm and the water surface was like a mirror. We saw mullet streaking below the surface, pushing bow waves up ahead, the odd green turtle head breaking the surface to take a breath. There would be patches of white bubbles left on the smooth surface after a smash. We came to a stretch where there were a number of bubble patches, so I stopped the boat and had a few casts with a small popper. I had a fish try to eat the popper twice, without connecting.

We continued upriver, to the place where I had caught the snapper yesterday. We started working our way along the rocks and ledges, casting poppers and stickbaits (floating and suspending). I got a strong snapper of around 1kg, which gave me a great fight on a suspending Stick Shadd. A short while later I had a bump on the lure, just after I had pulled it past some rocks. I cast there again and had another bump, but no hookup. I considered changing lures, to show the fish something different, but I cast a third time and the lure got hit at the same spot, and this time it was vas. The fish fought hard and took a lot of line, with some strong runs. When I landed him we saw it was a nice GT of around 3kg’s. A beautiful fish!

We made our way even further upriver, and pulled the boat onto a bank, where we could walk and cast. I was throwing a popper at the cliffs opposite and bringing it back with a gurgling action, when I saw a fish follow it right to my feet, a good sized pickhandle barracuda. I made a couple more casts with the popper to try and get a bite, and had another follow, but no bite. I changed to the Sebile suspending Stick Shadd and worked that. I sped it up towards the end of the retrieve, with a quick jerky action and it was hit at my feet, with the fish almost launching itself on to the bank. It did some blistering runs, streaking around the pool, but I landed it in the end, a beauty, with nice dark markings.

There was some otter scat and fish bones on the ground, as well as a couple of shed prawn shells. There is a lot of life in these pools at the top of the river. I was interested to see that there were a few barnacles, oysters and reef worm on some of the boulders. Even this far up, the salt content is enough at times to support some of these marine filter feeders.

We got back on the boat and moved a bit further up, looking for a lure that I had snapped off in a tree and had fallen into the water. We retrieved the lure and I made a few casts nearby. A good size snapper (3kg plus) ate the sinking Stick Shadd on the surface close to the boat and screamed off, sadly cutting me off after a few seconds of hard running.

The South Westerly had got up strongly by then, so we decided to head back to the lodge for a break from the sun and get some refreshment.

So far the Sebile 7.2 cm Suspending Stick Shadd is proving to be the lure of the trip, getting more bites than anything else that we have tried. It is an excellent lure for this type of fishing, with the ability to remain in the zone for some time, while being made to look like a severely wounded baitfish.

The wind kept blowing hard, so we took a bit of a break in the afternoon, then went to the small river. We explored the river with the small boat, casting at ledges etc, but didn’t raise a single fish. Probably as a result of the low pressure system that moved in, I have no doubt that there were fish there.

One thing I noticed is that there is very little fishing pressure on these rivers. There don’t seem to be many locals fishing. In two days we have passed two guys fishing from the bank, one on each river. This afternoon we were drifting along quietly and I smelt the sweet smell of someone smoking a joint. We came around the corner and there were two fellas on the bank with handlines and a couple of dogs, enjoying the evening.

Up at 4 am again, the wind was light and there were no stars, so it looked like overcast conditions, and the air definitely felt cooler.
We headed to the drop off in the main river. Pierre stood on the bank and cast fly, while I drifted nearby with the boat. I cast a few surface lures and Stick Shadd, but had no action. I changed to a 5 inch Berkley Powerbait (pearl Blue Shad colour)jerk shad on a 3/8oz jig head. I bounced that off the bottom and ended up catching three kob in the space of about half an hour.

I noticed something big making a commotion in the water near the bank at the end of the drop off and then saw skate wings coming out of the water, as a big diamond ray hunted mullet against the side. He then swam straight towards us, right on the surface, so that we could watch his approach for around a 100m as he was pushing a big bow wave. He came right past us on the surface and I flicked a lure near him, to see if there was perhaps a GT swimming with him, but no such luck. There were also a few green turtles in the area, and we would see their heads pop up and hear the sigh each time they came up for air.
We picked Pierre up and headed upriver. I took him to the places where we had been catching fish over the last two days. We were drifting and I was working a 9cm sinking Sebile Stick Shadd, when I stopped retrieving to point out a hamerkop nest to Pierre. My stick bait got hit while it was resting, and I landed a small kob.

We continued up river, with Pierre getting a hit on a Rapala Twitchin’ Mullet by a river snapper, which didn’t hook up. We stopped at the same place as yesterday and got off the boat to walk the bank and spin a bit. I worked a small
¼ oz black bucktail along the bottom, bouncing it slowly, and had a knock. A couple of casts later I went tight and the fish came jumping out of the water, a beautiful skipjack, which commenced to take off and strip line at high speed. I landed it after a nice fight.

A short while later I had a couple of fish zig-zagging behind my bucktail as it came in, looking like small kingies, but they didn’t hit the lure.

I cast a small sinking jerkbait across the mouth of a small, shallow creek and was rewarded with a beautiful little sea pike, no more than 20cm long, with gorgeous dark chevron markings. Pierre had gone on ahead and he called that there was a pool with some river bream in it. I went to where he was and tried a variety of lures, but had no success, apart from something small which flashed at my tiny popper. Walking back I cast a brass Abu Droppen spinner into a real tiny pool, which was connected to the river via a narrow channel. I got hit and pulled in a little cape moony, smaller than the palm of my hand, but somehow hooked in the mouth.

As we approached the area where the boat was parked there were a bunch of smashes on the surface in the middle of the river and along the rock ledge at the bottom of the cliff opposite. I ran and made a cast with the Droppen spinner and went tight almost immediately. While I was fighting the fish I noticed another swimming with it and told Pierre to make a cast with his fly rod. He did so and went on immediately and we both landed respectable big eye kingfish.

We boarded the boat and started making our way back down river. As we approached the first bend there was a commotion ahead of us, as a shoal of big eye kingies hit bait in the channel ahead of us with splashy smashes. I drove us onto them as Pierre prepared to cast. He made his cast, then cursed, as he had a faulty fly on that he needed to change. He told me to quickly cast while he sorted out his admin, and I did so with a suspending Stick Shadd. I gave it quick jerky twitches and it was hit within seconds of landing and I got another feisty bigeye kingfish.

We drifted a bit further down and made a few casts at various good looking spots. We jumped off the boat and walked a small gravel bank, where we could cast across towards some boulders in the river on the other side. We saw a giant mud crab (Scylla serata) in the clear, shallow water. He was swimming along the bottom, he was a bit shy of us and picked up some speed and disappeared into the deeper water when we got too close.
Pierre got a GT of around 2kg’s on his Rapala Twitchin’ mullet, which gave him a good pull, and he was very stoked. By then it was already afternoon, so we decided to head back to the lodge for a bit of a break and some refreshement.

While we were travelling back downriver I saw a raptor coming towards us, it came over us fairly low and landed in a tree, giving us a pretty good look. It was a pale phase booted eagle, a great sighting of a magnificent bird.

We headed out the next morning at first light, stopping at the dropoff area and making a few casts, I landed a kob on a 5’ jerkshad. I stuck my finger into its mouth to get the lure out and he bit down, hard, and wouldn’t release, which was pretty painful, eventually he let go and I could withdraw my bleeding, throbbing fingertip. We continued upriver and stopped for a few casts at some rocks in the water at the mouth of a small inlet. I worked a Berkley Bullet Popper around the rocks slowly, and was rewarded with a thornfish, not big, but another species nonetheless.

We continued on to the top of the river, making casts at all the good looking spots, but had no other touches along the way. We pulled the boat up at the bank and got off to walk the top pools and cast lures. I was looking for a river bream specifically, to add to the species count. I saw a few bream and had some follows on my lures, but they refused to eat.

The tide eventually turned and with the drop, the fish started moving. Pierre and I each got a barracuda in the top pool, I went off looking for a river bream in the pools above, Pierre stayed where he was and landed a skipjack on fly while we were away. Again I failed to get a bream to eat, something is holding these tricky feeders back.

We left the top at around 5pm, after a long day. We had to make our way back to the lodge to start a braai and pack up our tackle. I was happy with our return from four days of fishing. I had managed to catch eight species of fish on lure in the river. Nqabara had lived up to its potential and I am happy to report that it is a real gem. There are only a handful of Transkei rivers that have accommodation available for the public, and Nqabara rates right up there with the very best of them.

Nottingham Estate

We were recently invited to go and fish on a private game and citrus farm in Southern Zimbabwe, not far from the town of Beit Bridge, called Nottingham estate. The farm covers 20 000 hectares of mostly wild bush, with plenty of wildlife, including elephants, hyena and leopard. The dam that we went to fish in is called Mashilichokwe, and is around 7km long.

The fishing retreat is a peaceful lodge, built amongst some big trees on the water’s edge. They have a sheltered jetty area, and a number of boats for use on the dam. The dam has plenty of structure in the form of rock outcrops and sunken timber. Some world class large mouth bass have been caught in the dam, including the current farm record of a fish weighing 7.8kg’s.

We were there during the post spawn period, which made it a bit difficult to locate big fish, but had quality fishing anyway, with a number of good size fish being landed.

The fish were in excellent condition, and fought very hard. We also had some good fun targeting Niloticus bream on small spinners and light tackle, and managed to catch a few quality specimens.

In the evenings we were treated to dinners at the lodge, or at the fly camp, where low grade oranges from the citrus farm are dumped to feed the elephants. There were plenty of herds of these huge beasts, as well as eland, warthog and baboons which all came to feast on the fruit. The view from the escarpment looked like a scene from “The Lion King”, with electric lights lighting the area up at night.

This trip was something really different for us, with some amazing bird watching, great game viewing and excellent bass fishing. Nottingham Estate is one of those special destinations which should be on any keen bass fisherman and outdoorsman’s agenda to visit.

Catsonova Cruises

The Bazaruto archipelago must be one of the most spectacular pieces of marine shoreline along the east African coast. It consists of four main islands; Margaruque, Benguerra, Bazaruto and Paradise islands, strung out in a pretty chain just offshore of the Mozambican mainland town of Vilanculos.

I have fished the archipelago many times over the years, and count it amongst my favourite fishing destinations. It covers a large area and recently I got the opportunity to explore the entire archipelago in a single trip, which I have never done before. Making this possible was the new Catsonova live aboard operation, which is based out of Vilanculos.

Catsonova is a forty-four foot motor yacht, which has been recently refurbished and is used as a houseboat type setup in the area. She is crewed by a helpful and friendly staff; Jose’, her skipper, Zef, the cook, Roberto another skipper and deck hand and Dean Taylor, a young Zimbabwean, who is the operations manager, host and fishing guide.

This enthusiastic team put all of their efforts into making each trip aboard Catsonova as comfortable and pleasant as possible. Dean is a qualified chef, so the meals on board are top class, he is also a keen and passionate fisherman. He has had a few years experience in the area, working out of Benguerra lodge as a fishing guide in the past, so is perfectly placed to put his guests onto good fish.

The Bazaruto archipelago is within a marine national park, so there is plenty of marine wildlife to enjoy in the area, and the fishing is world class.

Catsonova was our base, and she moved around to different moorings each day, allowing us to fish different areas. We fished from a ski boat that accompanied Catsonova, and met up with her each afternoon at her new anchorage. This allowed us an opportunity to fish the entire archipelago over the course of a week, something not normally possible when land based.

We had two amazing sightings of dugong, as well as manta rays, sharks, turtles, dolphins and of course some fantastic sunsets and sunrises. We also managed to get in some snorkeling on beautiful reefs, and of course we fished until our arms were ready to drop off.

The Bazaruto archipelago is home to a diverse range of fish species, including a wide variety of predators and game fish. We caught nine species of kingfish, along with many other species of predators. We fished everything from light tackle to the heaviest of popping gear, and all that is in between. Poppers, bucktail jigs, stickbaits and soft plastics all did a lot of duty and all produced fish. We chased down shoals of busting fish on the surface, with birds diving overhead, and got into tuna and king mackerel. We threw poppers and stickbaits at good looking water and landed GTs, and we drifted over reefs, working small jigs and spoons to catch a variety of predators and colourful bottom species.

The Catsonova experience is something quite different to staying in a land based lodge, and offers great opportunities to explore further afield within the archipelago. It gave us a whole new perspective on the islands and allowed us to fish areas that have previously been unavailable to us for fishing the prime times.

We thoroughly enjoyed our week, which was made even more special by the really dedicated efforts of Dean and his team. They could not do enough to make our trip great, and were always ready and willing to do whatever it took to make us happy. The Catsonova experience is one that I would recommend to anybody who wants to get a full, tropical blue water fishing experience in waters that are easy to access and full of fish. The Airlink flight from Johannesburg to Vilanculos takes less than an hour and a half, making it a quick and painless trip, and you can be fishing within a few hours of leaving home.

Fishing Report – Sardine Run 2018

The Sardine run has started with a bang!

Normally the Sardine Run begins with lots of gannet activity, then tons of dolphins and whale, sightings before the arrival of the silver fish. This year has been the opposite way around. The sardines arrived before the birds, dolphins and whales. Perhaps that is because this year’s run is shaping up to be a bumper one, and while the birds, dolphins and whales accompany the bulk of the sardines, still holding off the wild coast, the pilot shoals have stolen the limelight on the South coast.

Sharks have accompanied some of the shoals, with plenty of large fins being seen right in the shore break at times. Shark anglers have had a ball tossing baits to these monsters, and then buckling up for the fight of their lives. While some beauties have been landed, there are also many tales of broken tackle and wrecked egos.

While the shad have been their usual elusive selves, appearing at times, then disappearing again, they have been around enough to head up the menu in many households already this season. Game fish such as Garrick, kingfish and queen mackerel have also been caught along with the sardines, by those faithful who work the water with spoons and plugs from the beaches and rocks.

The offshore game fish have been predictably difficult to catch, with so much natural food on offer. Ski boat anglers at this time of year make amends by enjoying the arrival of geelbek and Dagga Salmon.

 

 

With such a bumper run in the offing, the Inside Angling crew has been racing up and down the coast, along with the beach sein netters, and the rest of the population, trying to experience the full impact of the frenzy that the annual run brings.

Situ Island Resort

With all the traveling we get to do in the course of filming the Inside Angling TV series, we visit a lot of lodges, hotels and resorts around Africa and the Indian Ocean islands. Every now and then we come across a rare little gem, a place that is different and has something special going for it. Recently, we enjoyed a direct flight from Johannesburg to Pemba on Airlink and visited Situ Island in the Quirimbas Archipelago in Northern Mozambique, which we found it to be exactly one of these little gems.

Our first impression on arrival was of a hidden private place, set right on the beach. The sandstone outcrops in the water in front of and around the lodge provide for beautiful scenery, and the buildings blend in with the vegetation of the island.

We were welcomed into the main building, where we encountered a relaxed atmosphere and simple, yet comfortable furnishings. The floor is beach sand, so you take off your sandals and don’t use them again until you leave. The ultimate in barefoot luxury.

The bar is a ‘help yourself’ honesty version, where you pour your own drinks and write down what you’ve taken in a book. There is an iced water machine in the lounge, where you are able to help yourself to as much chilled water as you like, something that’s unusual in the tropics! There is a small staff compliment and the whole place has an intimate feel, very different to most commercial lodges.

Situ is run by Craig and Tessa Macdonald, a South African couple from East London, who are passionate about Situ Island and its surrounds. Craig skippered us on our fishing excursions, and kept us entertained with his quirky sense of humour, then got straight into the kitchen whenever we arrived back at the lodge and started putting together delicious meals. He is a chef of note and as passionate about good food as he is about the island. Tessa runs the diving, snorkeling, kayak paddling and other activities and is very involved with, and knowledgeable about the environment and creatures of Situ. One of the more remarkable things she does is hand feed the Moray Eels on the reef in front of the lodge on the low tide, where they come swarming out and surround her as she hands out tasty tit bits.

Everything about Situ is relaxing. The staff keep a low profile, but are never far away if you need them. Craig and Tessa were helpful and nothing was too much trouble for them, they were very happy for us to set the pace and customize our own schedule each day, their flexibility made it easy for us to relax and appreciate this piece of paradise.

Meals at Situ were nothing short of outstanding. They buy seafood fresh from the locals and we were served delicious fresh seafood daily, complimented by loads of fresh salads, homemade sauces, pickled fish and of course the most finger licking good Mozambican chicken. In fact the food alone is enough of a reason to visit Situ!

There are plenty of reefs in the area and one doesn’t need to travel very far to get to fishing spots. Species that we came across included Gt’s, Bluefin Kingfish, Bigeye Kingfish, Amberjack, Dogtooth Tuna, King Mackerel, Green Jobfish and Pickhandle Barracuda. There were also plenty of Yellowfin Tuna about and we saw Sailfish jumping, though we didn’t target those species. Broadbill Swordfish are also targeted at night near Situ, so the fishing potential is excellent.

What really excited me was the form of the reefs. There is incredible structure, with some huge steps, ledges and walls under the water. The potential for fishing amongst such structure is exceptional.

I have tucked Situ Island Resort into my personal portfolio of places I would love to get back to again soon.

Just hope it isn’t too long before I do.

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