PASSION & PAIN IN THE SURF:
Gradually and over the course of a four hour drive, I watched as the terrain through which we were driving transformed. First there had been the dense scrub and acacia woodland in the highlands around Windhoek, now we were driving through a barren lunar like landscape of sand and rock. We had long since passed the last tree, now the only vegetation was an occasional, isolated, and shriveled bush or two. Certainly the Namib desert was living up to its reputation as one of the driest, most desolate places on earth.
Finally we reached our destination, the coastal town of Swakopmund-gateway to the Skeleton Coast, which had slowly emerged on the western horizon, shimmering like a mirage in the mid-afternoon heat haze. A surprisingly smart, clean and welcoming town, Swakopmund still retains much of its German heritage, indeed in certain areas you might be forgiven for thinking you were strolling around a village in Bavaria, rather than a town sandwiched between the South Atlantic and the Namib Desert in south-west Africa.
We had arrived, finally, and the following morning we would fish those glorious surf beaches which had haunted me since I had first seen ‘that video’. It had been almost two years to the day since first I had watched the video at an angling exhibition in Birmingham and had spent a fascinating 10 minutes watching some of the most breathtaking angling footage I had ever seen on tape. A proportion of the film had been shot on the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, and it showed anglers locked in battle with enormous great sharks that were all but pulling them into the sea. I had promised myself there and then that one day I would fish that beach.
Later that first evening Clive Gammon, my traveling partner, and I first met Johan Burger, who would be our guide for the week. Apart from quickly proving to be one of the most knowledgeable and likable guides either of us had ever fished with, Johan, we learned, is one of southern Africa’s top surf anglers, that year, 1996, he had won the prestigious rock and surf angling competition held annually between South Africa and Namibia. Johan was absolutely confident that we would have a successful trip, and held our total and undivided attention as he ran through the sort of action we should expect.
The following morning Johan picked us up promptly at eight, in his purposeful looking 4×4 pick-up truck, complete with rod racks fitted to both the bumper and the roof. The plan, he had explained the previous evening, was to drive north and spend the morning fishing various stretches of beach. Johan new Clive and I were both passionate surf anglers, so initially we would be concentrating on catching several of the unique species of fish that hunt the Southern African surf line.
After maybe half an hours drive Johan e off the rough coast road, and headed due west through the desert to the coast, which lay shrouded in a grey veil of mist. The cold, nutrient rich, Benguela current pushes northwards out of the Antarctic Ocean, colliding with the African continent at the Skeleton Coast. Sea mists and fog are frequently formed when cool, moist sea blown winds are driven inland, and subsequently condense over the hot, baked, desert sands. On many days when fishing the beach the temperature here is sufficiently cool enough to warrant wearing a fleece, yet less than half a mile inland the arid Namib desert would be baking in over 40 degrees of blistering heat; its an interesting contrast.
We found a brisk surf pounding the beach and for all the world and had it not been for the passing flamingo’s, we could have been fishing a favorite bass strand in the west of Ireland. But as we were quickly to discover, there was another major difference between this beach and others I have fished.
Within a minute of casting a fillet of frozen pilchard, my rod was wrenched seawards as a fish hit it hard. I struck, the rod bent, and a broad smile erupted over my face as I felt the solid resistance of a good fish surge through the waves. I hooked caught my first Namibian fish on my first cast in, a fin perfect fish known as a cob of about 5lb. I was delighted with that fish, but Johan gently brought me back down to earth by informing me that the ‘average’ size for a cob caught here during the southern summer months was perhaps 20lb-30lb!
And so it went on that first morning, with Clive and I relishing the novelty and total indulgence of catching fish after fish out of a near perfect surf. We caught plenty of cob, and if a cob didn’t hit our bait within a minute or two of it hitting the water, then we could guarantee hooking a small saltwater catfish within five.
After a few hours Johan drove us further north to a rockier stretch of coastline, where we caught magnificent steenbras, South Africa’s premier surf fish. Then there were the stocky, bream like galjoen which we caught using ‘white mussel’, clam like shellfish that Johan nonchalantly excavated out of the sand with his bare feet…surely we had arrived in the ultimate surf anglers paradise?
I think we both would have fished for cob, steenbras and galjoen all day, if not all week, had Johan not announced it was time to try for more challenging quarry. The next mark Johan selected for us to fish was more or less identical to countless other stretches of beach we had already passed. He told us we would catch a fish within ten minutes, and as always his predictions were spot on.
Once again I was stood holding my surf rod, feeling that hypnotic pull and draw of the surf on my line. This time I was using a whole mackerel head mounted on a strong 6/0 when suddenly the line drew taught as if a bunch of seaweed had fouled it, then all went slack. Not suspecting anything out of the ordinary I took two turns of the reel handle to regain contact with my terminal rig, when without warning the line slammed tight and the rod bent alarmingly and was all but ripped from my hands!
“Got one”, I screeched as yard upon yard of line vanished from the reel against a stiff drag setting. Johan glanced over, nodded in confirmation, and continued with his fishing. Never before when surf fishing had I felt such power from a fish, I knew without a doubt I was connected to the biggest fish I had up until that time ever hooked from the shore. Eventually that first run slowed then eased to a gradual stop, and I managed to gain some line, though it was only following some fifteen minutes of tough pumping before I finally caught sight of the fish, doggedly swimming amidst the wash of white water along the surf line.
Minutes later Johan waded in and tailed that fish, a spotted-gully-shark he estimated at 50lb plus. I was ecstatic, but barely had I finished photographing my prize when I saw Johan, closely followed by Clive were also bent into fish of similar proportions. With hands still shaking I re-baited, cast out and was very quickly I tight to another fish.
Less than 40 minutes after starting shark fishing we had caught four gully sharks averaging well in excess of 30lb a piece on the beach, when once again Johan informed us it was time to try another mark. Clive and I listened in almost total disbelief as we were informed that having now caught our bait we could fish for some proper sharks. As we headed north those inspiring images I had first watched on that video in Birmingham came back to haunt me.
We drove for about an hour through some of the bleakest and most inhospitable terrain imaginable. Mile upon mile of desert unfolded before us in our quest to catch a truly massive fish from the shore. Finally, and with the air of self-confidence which we were to learn was Johan’s trade mark, again we turned west off the dirt road, and rattled and bumped our way across the sand to the surf line.
Johan pulled to a halt and sat surveying the surf for maybe five minutes, before announcing that the colour of the water was wrong for sharks. Again we set off in a northerly direction, this time hugging the high water mark before arriving at a particular spot he liked.
Intrigued as to how one uses a fish weighing better than 50lb for bait, we watched in fascination as Johan made his preparations. The liver and gills he cut from the shark and mounted on a pair of 8/0 hooks to create a bait weighing perhaps 1lb. The carcass of the shark he staked on the surf line, so that each surge of waves carried a trail of blood and oil out to sea forming a chum line for the sharks to follow.
The baited heavy shark rods were cast out and Clive and I were provided with butt pads, “How long do you generally have to wait”, Clive asked Johan? “Usually about an hour”, came the reply. “Do you think we will get a run?”, Clive continued, barely hiding the undertone of doubt in his voice. “We will get a shark, I guarantee it”, came Johan’s confident reply.
Actually it was about 40 minutes before the first shark arrived. I had been sat staring at the waves, thinking of nothing in particular, when I was snapped back to reality by what at first I though was a large seal. A second later I realised my error and there, swimming less than 20 yards out from the surf line was our first encounter with what they call a copper shark in southern Africa, a fish known elsewhere around the world as a bronze whaler.
Johan and Clive had also seen the shark and the tension on the beach mounted as the huge fish worked closer to our staked ‘chum sharks’ and baits. Clive and I stood in anticipation as the huge fish cruised around a while before disappearing. We said nothing for maybe five minutes, then I asked Johan if he thought the fish had gone. “He’s still there, he can smell the bait and he wont leave until he’s found it”, he informed me, and with that the ratchet on Clive’s reel screamed loudly as yard after yard of line were ripped off the reel despite a substantial drag setting.
Clive struck once, twice then a third time to set the hook, and the fish responded aggressively, speeding off directly towards Brazil. A minute or two into the fight, Clive’s face said it all. Here was a man who has been everywhere and caught just about every sporting species known, but the look of total disbelief on Clive’s face confirmed that never when fishing from the beach had he encountered anything such as the fish to which he was now firmly connected.
And so the fight continued and eventually, of course, the fish slowed and Clive managed to inch a few yards of line back onto the reel, but it very quickly became apparent that this fight was not going to be over quickly. At one stage Clive ended up sitting in the front of Johan’s truck holding on to his rod, and I offered him a cold bottle of coke. He gratefully excepted and gulped at it, the strain of having the fish exert so much pressure on him was starting to show.
Around 40 minutes into the fight the ratchet on a second reel sang out. I threw the camera into the back of the truck, grabbed the rod and set the hooks into my first copper shark. This fish, too, tore off on a long and powerful run, but it quickly became apparent it was not a fish anywhere near as large as Clive’s, and fifteen minutes later I had our first copper of the trip on the beach. It was a fish which at any other time and if caught on any other beach would have made the news pages of the fishing magazines, but weighing perhaps 80lb, it barely warranted a second glance in Namibia.
With my fish quickly photographed and returned to the sea, our attention was once again given to Clive, who was now well over an hour into the fight with his fish; I am sure he was wishing he’d never heard of Namibia and copper sharks! By now the fish had taken to cruising up and down the beach, following a line running parallel to the surf, maybe 80 yards out, though clearly this was a large shark and it was still a long way from giving up the fight.
Nearly two hours into the fight, the light beginning to fade, and Clive’s fish was swimming very close to the beach, and Johan waded out to try and tail it. Wading in the middle of a chum trail in water where you know hungry sharks are swimming is a sobering experience, but Johan said it was safe and looked totally at ease. Finally he managed to grab its tail and pulled it into shallow water, where it took the combined efforts of both Johan and I to drag the fish onto the beach…Clive by now being in an advanced stage of physical exhaustion.
If that fish had looked big in the water, out on dry land it was truly massive. It was 9ft in length and Johan estimated its weight at 250lb. In Johan’s book 250lb measures up as a ‘nice’ fish, it takes fish in excess of 300lb to turn heads on these beaches.
Clive’s shark was photographed and returned, and the two of us stood in total awe as we watched that great fish cruise confidently back out into deeper water. To put matters into their true perspective, not half an hour previous I had landed the biggest fish I had ever caught from the beach, and I don’t think we even mentioned it. On the way back to our hotel, Johan actually ‘apologised’ for the ‘poor’ standard of fishing, saying that hopefully we would have a better day tomorrow. Clive and I sat in the back and said nothing.
My biggest shark of the trip came a couple of days later. We had been joined by a couple of Swedish anglers, and one of them had hooked another big shark. That fish had first led him 500 yards in a southerly direction down the beach, before abruptly changing course and running north. At the time I hooked my fish the Swede was a mere blip on the horizon, disappearing in the direction of Angola!
I spotted had another very big fish ‘tailing’ amidst our chum line in the shallows, like some obscenely huge bonefish digging for crab on tropical flat flats. I ran to the truck, grabbed a rod, and lobbed the bait maybe 30 yards out to a spot just in front of the slowly moving fish. A few minutes later the line snapped taut, I set the hook, and hung on as the fish powered away.
Twenty minutes into the fight and I was sat in the sand, dug into an improvised fighting chair which at times I was almost dragged out of. Visions of that Mustad promotional video that had first fired my imagination flooded back to me; this was what I had wanted, and now with my fore arms and lower back in absolute agony, I silently questioned my sanity! A little under an hour after hook-up I had my fish on the beach, weighing just over 150lb it ranked barely as average on the Namibian scale.
And the Swede? Well, by now it was almost two and a half hours since he had hooked his fish, and we had to drive a mile up the beach before we found him, still seemingly no closer to beaching his fish. It was totally dark now and we had to use the truck headlights to illuminate the surf where, eventually, we got our first sighting of the fish. For a little under three hour he fought that fish before we managed to beach it. It was another great lump of a shark estimated at about 220lb, but unfortunately it had been foul hooked in the tail, which explained the long drawn out fight.
For the rest of the trip we alternated between shark fishing and fishing for other fish, and we caught plenty fish every day. Apparently conditions were ‘bad’ and had they been better we would have caught a lot more fish.
The articles we both wrote following that first trip were the catalyst for the amazing amount of interest in British anglers fishing in Namibia. I returned sometimes twice each year for the next five years, taking groups of anglers to fish for shark, and the fishing we experienced was truly phenomenal. Every client I took caught fish in excess of 100lb, most better than 200lb during their six days fishing. Truly Namibia really was and still is the ultimate angling destination for big game fishing from the beach.