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Birdy Days on a Fishing Safari
Clive Gammon
August 26, 1968
It takes a stout heart to overcome even the usual frustrations connected with fishing. But problems the author found in Zululand would make a crocodile shed human tears
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August 26, 1968

Birdy Days On A Fishing Safari

It takes a stout heart to overcome even the usual frustrations connected with fishing. But problems the author found in Zululand would make a crocodile shed human tears

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"Sleep well?" asked Feely jauntily. I looked at him with heavy eyes. "It was a little noisy," I said. I told him about the screams and the earth-moving noises. "Oh," he said, interested, "so the hyenas arc back." The other noise, it appeared, was merely rhino rubbing against the stockade fence. "They love to do it," said Feely. "They're there almost every night." He might have warned me.

We drove east toward the coast. Eagle owls burst from the headlights—we counted a dozen before the dawn broke. As soon as it was light and we hit the tarred road, there were Zulu girls selling pineapples and avocados. This was the main route south from the cities of the Witwatersrand, and later in the day there would be tourist cars. We picked up bait from a fish stall in St. Lucia—huge prawns, crayfish tail, and more pilchards. Other cars had pulled in there with rods aboard, and eager anglers were loading up with bait also. Everybody agreed that Mission Rocks was the place. Did we know that a 70-pound kingfish had come from there the day before yesterday? I was interested to learn that dead fish grew just as rapidly here as they did in other places.

It was a good long trek to Mission Rocks. We had to leave the VW in the shade of a palm clump, then walk a soft sandy path shaded by bougainvillea. There were plenty of footprints along it, and Feely told me that there was a spring tide, so we would be able to cross an uncovered reef and cast into deep water.

The sands were white, mile after mile of them stretching north to the border of Portuguese East Africa. Piers and sea walls of rock jutted into the sea at this place. You could see why it was a good fishing spot. But the water was wild. Not a breath of wind moved, yet big blue-green waves marched in series to crash on the reef. This was going to be a problem. There are no strong tidal currents along the Zululand coast, and we had brought only light sinkers. Maybe a dozen anglers were already fishing, wearing the heavy leather belts and harnesses that South Africans all use for shore fishing. This does not mean that they are ultracautious. Rockfish run to huge sizes there. Red steenbras and kabeljou go more than 100 pounds, and in some places they catch albacore and yellow and bluefin tuna from the rocks.

We didn't have harnesses, Feely and I, but that was only because we couldn't borrow any. We waded through the soft white sand, then scrambled over the rocks. The rollers hit with a bomb burst of spray that made rainbow patterns in the sun. The final rock platform was treacherous. There were deep holes, and fissures and bright green patches of a lichenous weed that almost took the feet from under me the first time I stepped on one. We baited up well back from the sea's edge. It was going to be a question of running up to the lip to cast between rollers.

Purposely, I didn't look at Feely as he made his first approach. I just heard the wild cry and turned to see him sitting in a shallow pool, looking desperately at a horrible snarl up of line on his reel spool. "Look out!" I yelled. Too late. A wave smashed into the underside of the reef. The water rose high in the air and fell on Feely. He scrambled back, dripping, his hair in his eyes. It wasn't fair. This was not the way to be introduced to the gentle art of angling.

It was my turn to venture out. I watched my timing and in cowardly fashion contented myself with a quick lob of 50 or 60 yards. I let out line as I came back from the ledge, then tightened up. A little too much. I felt a solid resistance as the sinker or the hook snagged firmly in the rock. I broke my line and walked back to the tackle bag for more gear. In the course of the next couple of hours, Feely and I got through 14 sinkers and 17 hooks.

But the fishing was better than at St. Lucia. I caught a rock cod, a green and brown fish with enormous staring eyes and a set of evil-looking spikes behind the dorsal fin. It was 11 inches long. Feely caught a catfish and he was stowing it in his bag, not saying much but obviously very pleased, when another angler came along, looked at it and said, "Deadly poisonous." This was the end. Feely got his dry pack of cigarettes out of the tackle bag, observing that at least we could have a smoke. "Got a light?" said Feely. I looked at him mutely and took out my matches, congealed in a soggy mass. Feely rummaged frantically in his bag and came up with nothing. As a sport, fishing was rapidly plummeting in his estimation.

But back at the car we got lights from another disappointed angler. It wasn't our fault, it seemed, that we hadn't taken fish. Nobody had, because of the big ground sea that was running, caused by a hurricane off Madagascar, everyone thought. The big fish liked it calm. "You should have been here yesterday," said our new friend. "I hear there were a couple of 75-pound kingfish taken."

That night we sat around the oil lamp in the lodge, making fresh plans. We'd tried the estuary and the shore. Only one thing was left—offshore fishing. There are no harbors in Zululand, or not what you'd call a harbor. This, you'd think, would hinder the use of suitable vessels for game fishing. But the locals had found a way around this by going to sea in craft they called ski-boats, high-prowed, fiat-bottomed boats propelled by two big out-boards. What "they have in common with reef fishing is the timing technique. You launch off the beach in a surf lull, then depend on the motors to get you out before a big one breaks. Making a landfall is even more exciting.

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