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.