KENYA: TIGER SHARKS

PAPA KUBWA!

“What I’d like, what I’d really like to catch,’ I explained to Angus as we sat working our way through our respective bottles of iced Tusker beer in the bar at the Malindi Fishing Club, “is to catch a seriously big fish, something in excess of 500lb would be just fine…a personal best!” “That’s possible, but the way the fishing is just now I’d not hold out too much hope, but then again we wont know for sure unless you try,” the owner skipper of the Kingfisher boat Neptune had replied before continuing, “you’re fishing aboard Snow Goose tomorrow, I’ll brief the crew and you can try soaking a big bait in the canyons off Watamu, maybe you’ll get luck and tempt one of those big tiger sharks that were so prolific there last season, though to be honest I’ve not heard of any being caught so far this season.”

The following morning it was still dark when I was picked up at The Driftwood Club, but by the time we had driven down through Malindi to the transported the town’s famous pier it was almost fully light. Snow Goose sat at her mooring a short distance offshore, engines idling, and stepping aboard I was greeted by three old friends, Alfred, who’d be acting as skipper that day, Addi and young Sabin. They are a great crew with whom I’d last fished a few months previously, I day I had spent most of the day in the water photographing some of the many sailfish, wahoo and marlin we’d caught. We had christened ourselves the Snow Goose Swimming Club, though only Addi and I had actually ended up in the water!

SHARK BAIT!

SHARK BAIT!

As we slipped our mooring and chugged slowly out of the bay to clear the jagged coral reef, Alfred swung the helm to starboard and we headed south towards Watamu. Sabin, who like the rest of the crew knew our game plan, teased me as to whether or not I’d be going swimming with any tiger sharks we managed to catch, as well as teasing as to whether or not I had the strength to do battle with ‘ papa kubwa’, a large shark! I played along with his games, squeezing his biceps as I retorted that I was more concerned about whether he had the strength to hold onto the heavy mono leader with a tiger shark thrashing about on the end of it!

After a mile or so the coloured inshore waters, which in late October are a chocolate brown as a result of the short rainy season flooding the Sabaki River, that empties into the Indian Ocean just north of Malindi, started to clear. Alfred eased back the throttle and Snow Goose slowed to a sedate trolling speed of around 7 knots, while Addi and Sabin swiftly set about getting our lines out. Barely had we started to troll when something grabbed the Rapala that had been set to swim deep off the downrigger. The fish ran off powerfully stripping many yards of line from the reel, and I grabbed the rod and started playing the fish. Five minutes later Sabin reached out and grabbed the leader and Addi sunk the gaff into the first fish of the day, a nice kingfish of maybe 20lb.

With the first fish caught within five minutes our spirits were high, and soon were boosted even higher when a short while later a double figure barracuda was similarly welcomed aboard ‘Snow Goose’, to the pronouncement from Addi that this would indeed make a fine bait for a big, hungry ‘papa kubwa’.

Within the first hour our progress south was halted on numerous occasions as more kingfish and ‘cuda’s’ plus a few small trevally and kawa-kawa (little tunny or bonito) made the fatal mistake of striking at our mixed assortment of lures and baits. Next our excitement was boosted even further, when the bill of what the crew cried was a small black marlin popped up behind the skirted strip bait fishing off the port tag line. I grabbed the rod, fed the bait back to the fish for a few seconds, pushed the lever drag back to strike, waited a moment for the line to come tight then struck, once, twice, three times, the rod bent and the reel screamed; fish on!

The fish ran off powerfully and I watched s a couple of hundred yards of line poured out through the rod rings. I, too, was convinced I was fighting a small marlin, but fifteen minutes later it was a sailfish not a marlin that swam off sporting a shiny new African Billfish Foundation tag. Of course this gave me another chance to tease Addi and Sabin about their misidentification!

Our next fish was another sailfish. This time the fish had taken the Rapala and somehow, against the all odds, managed to remain hooked for another successful tag and release, despite one of the most exciting aerial displays I have ever seen from a sailfish. Sailfish often strike Rapala’s, but rarely do they remain attached for long; certainly this was my first billfish on a plug.

By mid-morning we had more or less arrived at the area the crew planned on trying for a shark. With the skill of a Harley Street surgeon, Addi had lovingly cut and sewn a brace of large hooks complete with heavy duty wire trace into one of the barracuda’s, a trevally and the biggest of the bonito; big baits for a big fish. All our lines were reeled, the light rods stowed and replaced by a match pair of 130lb class outfits. Thew first was set to swim the bait fish off the down rigger at about 100ft, while the second bait skipped slowly a few hundred yards astern of us offering, a chance of raising a black marlin.

Once in position over Watamu’s famous ‘canyon’s’ we slowed to about 2knots, all the time Alfred skilfully manoeuvring us over the area hot spots he had already plotted as waypoints on the boats GPS. For the first hour nothing happened, and Alfred gave the order to reel up so we could a short distance to another area. The barracuda came up untouched, but when I wound in the bonito we could see it had been cleanly chomped in half by something with big, razor sharp teeth that had somehow managed to miss either hook. and had had the sense not to return for another bite.

At our second mark we repeated the drill, and at Alfred’s suggestion Adi put the profusely bleeding head half of bonito down on the downrigger. It was a good call. Barely had we resumed our slow trolling when I noticed the thumb thick tip of the 130lb class rod dip once, then again a second time prior to ever so slowly bending downwards. “Chuma Chuma Chuma”- Strike Strike Strike screamed Addi, at precisely the same instant Snow Goose’s engines roared into life as Alfred gunned the throttle. Clouds of black smoke erupted out of the exhaust ports completely obliterating the African coastline, as the accumulated carbon deposits built up from hours of slow trolling were blasted free.

TIGER SHARK

TIGER SHARK

The big rod bent alarmingly and line poured off the reel seemingly at will, yet earlier when I had tested the drag I had barely been able to pull line against the drag setting by hand. Alfred slowed almost to a stop and the heavy rod remained bent, confirmation that the fish had been solidly hooked. Bursting with excitement I struggled as I manoeuvred the rod from the secure holder in the transom and transferred both it and myself and into the chair to commence battle with my fish.

LOOK AT THOSE TEETH!

LOOK AT THOSE TEETH!

I pulled and wound for all I was worth, frequently forced to simply hang on when the big fish I was attached to got its head down and took line. Never before had I felt so much brutal power from a fish, and at times with the suncream and sweat burning my eyes and the sinews in my arms strained to what felt like breaking point, I regretted the previous evenings request to Angus!

NOT A GOOD PLACE FOR A SWIM!

NOT A GOOD PLACE FOR A SWIM!

At the time it was the struggle of my life, and it was the better part of thirty minutes or so before I managed to get the leader to the boat. As soon as he could, with gloved hands Addi reached over the transom and grabbed the leader, the fish now legally caught under the strict IGFA rules. After first slackening the drag I put the rod back in its holder and grabbed my Nikon. This was the first tiger shark I had ever seen, and it was easy to see how this most feared of oceanic predators had got its name with it’s striped colouring and ferocious set of razor sharp teeth.

I shot the best part of a roll of film before the fish,decided it did not want to lie on the surface being photographed, and with a kick of its powerful tail thrashed the surface water to foam as it dived for freedom, popping the leader in the process, which was absolutely fine by us, but here’s the kicker, while clearly it was a big tiger shark, papa kubwa it was not, Alfred told me  it ‘only’ weighed in the region of 300lb!

Within ten minutes of resuming trolling I found myself connected to my second tiger shark, and from the outset it was clear that this was a much, much bigger fish. This time it had taken the barracuda bait, and for the first ten minutes or so I was pretty much helpless to do anything. All I could do was hang on and grunt, but eventually I started to gain a few yards of line and the fight settled down to a one on one tug of war.

By now the cloud cover that during the morning had kept the temperatures refreshingly cool had been burnt away by the hot equatorial sun. With tired hands I struggled to maintain a grip on the rod, and I was beginning to seriously question my sanity at deliberately targeting the great fish I was now hooked to. It seemed an absolute age before once again Addi managed to grab the leader, only this time he looked at me with a broad smile and as I sat wasted in the fighting chair confirmed the capture of the biggest fish I had  as of then ever caught, a monstrous great tiger shark that the he assured my weighed ‘at-least’ 600lb’; I elated!

Once again I slacked the drag and secured the rod, and after wiping my face and hands clean with a towel grabbed my camera’s, just managing a to take a few quick shots before Addi,was all but dragged over the transom as the angry tiger exploded into life. Heroically he tried to hold on to the leader but was forced to release his grip when the leader cut through the gloves and severed two of his fingers almost to the bone.

The fish dived deeply and once again I had to jump into the fighting chair and work furiously to get the leader back to the boat, yet no sooner had I left the chair to try and snatch a few more shots, when Addi was once again forced to release the leader; this was one angry tiger shark. Desperate to get some good shots of my fish I asked Sabin, who for some reason had gone uncharacteristically quiet, to jump into the chair and pump the great beast back into camera range for me.

Looking just a little sheepish he settled himself into the chair and started pulling, while Addi and I teased him mercilessly as he grunted and groaned while attempting to recover line. Again Addi got hold of the leader and this time the shark powered under the boat, forcing Alfred to gun the engines ahead to prevent the line from fouling on the props or rudder. Addi had to relinquish his grip on the leader yet again as the fish dived, only this time the strain on the trace was too much and it parted.

The crew were keen to put our third big bait to work but having more than comfortably achieved my goal I said no, opting for the more leisurely option of slowly trolling our way back towards Malindi, while occasionally stopping along the way to do battle with yellowfin tuna and kingfish, while anticipating having my thirst quenched at the fishing club bar by the first of many celebratory Tuskers as I related the story of my battle with papa kubwa!

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